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Plastic is more problematic than we think. Ninety-nine percent of plastics are created from fossil fuels, producing 2 gigatonnes of CO2 per year, either as the feedstock to create the plastic or the energy used to manufacture them.

  • Global recycling of plastic is less than 10% and almost 20 metric tonnes is released into the environment annually
  • Most medical plastics are made from PVC, which is incredibly hard to recycle and additives in these items can leach out into the people being treated.
  • Concerningly the majority of medical products and devices have already done a lot of environmental harm before they even reach us: they can cause contamination of local drinking water of the communities surrounding the factories.
  • Additives make up to 40% of plastics. Most medical devices made from PVC use plasticisers to give the flexibility that makes them appropriate for use. The main plasticisers are phthalates. These can leach out into the patients being treated and the environment. Some additives, such as PFAs, dioxins and PFAs are endocrine disruptors and are toxic for both animals and humans, even at low doses.
  • Macroplastics can clog rivers causing flooding, lead to entanglement of marine life and have even been found ingested by seabirds.
  • Microplastics (and their additives and toxins) are found everywhere. They are often ingested by marine life and can act as vectors for all other sorts of hydrophobic organic contaminants.

Health Impacts of Plastics

Below is an infographic of the health impacts of plastics.

This infographic details the health impacts of plastic. It describes the health impacts of plastic production, use and disposal. Production: health impacts on plastic workers and fence-line communities. Plastic workers: coal mining impacts include traumatic injury, cave-ins, coal workers pneumoconiosis, Silicosis, cardiovascular disease and lung disease; Oil and gas extraction (conventional and fracking) is associated with traumatic injury, fire, explosion, Silicosis, cardiovascular disease, lung disease and COPD; Synthetic textile manufacture can cause bladder cancer, lung cancer, interstitial lung disease and mesothelioma. Plastic production, such as cracking, polymerisation and compounding is associated with hepatic angiosarcoma, brain cancer, mesothelioma, decreased fertility/sterility, breast cancer, lung cancer, neurotoxic injury, leukaemia, lymphoma, asthma, COPD and cardiovascular disease. We also need to consider fossil fuel transportation, which is associated with burns, injuries and traumatic death. Fracking has effects on fence-line communities and has been known to cause premature birth, low birth weight, childhood leukaemia, asthma, COPD, cardiovascular disease, vehicular injuries and mental health problems. Looking next at plastic use: plastic users can be effected by the leaching of chemical additives, causing decreased fertility, premature births, neurodevelopmental disorders, male reproductive birth defects, obesity , cancer and renal disease; micro- and nano-plastics, causing direct toxicity and associated with accumulation in tissues and cells, inflammation oxidative stress, lipid membrane alteration, mitochondrial injury and testicular injury; micro- and nano-plastics acting as vectors for toxic chemical and pathogens and resulting in decreased fertility, premature births, infections, male reproductive birth defects, neurodevelopmental disorders, cardiovascular disease, renal disease and obesity. Finally looking at plastic recycling and waste disposal. This is associated with cardiovascular disease, heavy metal poisoning, cancers, neuropathy and lung disease. Alt text

The Minderoo-Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health

Did you know?

  • Microplastics: in 2023 researchers have found that these tiny specks are released in huge quantities from plastic containers when they’re microwaved.

This means that a child weighing 10 kilograms would consume up to 1.4 micrograms of micro- and nanoplastics per week when drinking water (or formula) that had been microwaved using such container.

That’s terrifying!

The Good News

In June 2023 the first steps were agreed on a plastics treaty following talks in Paris. At UNESCO in Paris delegates from 180 nations set out the path towards a binding global agreement, which would tackle plastic pollution as soon as 2025.

Actions we can all take

  • Educate one other and share knowledge.
  • Reduce production and consumption by using fewer single use products and more reusable products, by challenging the ‘open just in case’ culture and by challenging suppliers, especially regarding PVC and packaging.
  • Use procurement and economic drivers to bring about change.

This will be cost-effective, we will save money. More importantly it will result in a reduction in pollution and demands on healthcare systems from improving people’s health.

The economic costs of plastics through harm to human health are enormous.

On World Ocean Day 2023, UK Health Alliance brought together health professionals to highlight the importance of our oceans and nature for health and you can watch the presentations in full.

If you want to learn more about ocean health, Healthcare Ocean has written an educational module, which is free and will go live in the spring.


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How to Drive Sustainable Healthcare: Educate, Engage, and Empower

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