Susan Freinkel on Our Toxic Plastic Love Affair (Podcast)
TreeHugger: What are the major health risks that people need to be aware of when it comes to plastic in their lives?
Susan Freinkel: Not all plastics have health problems that we know of, but there are a couple that are a source of concern. One is polycarbonate, which is the hard, clear plastic that used to be in sports water bottles and baby bottles, and is still used in things like CD cases. Polycarbonate is made with a chemical, bisphenol-A, which is an estrogen mimic. It was actually created as a synthetic estrogen. And there's a lot of research suggesting that it can leach from polycarbonate plastic and get into your body, if you drink, say, from a bottle made of polycarbonate.
And in your body it's capable of potentially interfering with hormones and affecting health down the line. It's been associated with heart disease, obesity, breast cancer, and a lot of other health conditions. It's particularly a problem when people are exposed during critical points of development: a baby in utero, a young infant, a toddler, a teenager-people at points when their systems are still really in flux and in development.
The other plastic that is a source of concern is vinyl or polyvinyl chloride. And that's a problem across its lifecycle. Polyvinyl chloride is made with some really nasty chemicals. When incinerated it throws off dioxin, which is a really potent carcinogen.
Vinyl, on its own, it's a kind of brittle material. But it can be made flexible and supple through the addition of phthalates, these sorts of oily chemicals. And phthalates are also hormone disruptors. In this case, the one I looked at mimics testosterone, and it can have the same kind of downstream health effects for people who are exposed to it at early points and critical points of development.
Vinyl, unlike polycarbonate, is everywhere. It's in your shower curtain, wallpaper, garden hoses. It's in plastic shoes and flip-flops. It's in food packaging and in the processing equipment often used in making dairy products. And the concern is that it is getting into women who are of childbearing age.
TH: You mentioned obesity. Is there reason to believe that plastic is playing a hand in the obesity epidemic?
Freinkel: Is plastic making us fat? There is some research suggesting, in the case of bisphenol-A, that there are links with obesity. But it's hard to tease out the individual effects of these different chemicals because we live in a world pervaded not just by plastic, but by synthetic chemicals, and we are under daily barrages.
Biomonitoring studies show that most of us harbor trace amounts of a whole slew of different industrial chemicals, each of which may have effects on their own, and may have synergistic or additive effects that we're just beginning to look at. These hormone disruptors work in really complex and convoluted ways, and may not have impacts until years or decades down the line. So it's difficult to tease out.
TH: Plastic is big business. What do the plastic people say about these concerns?
Freinkel: The plastics industry has tended to pooh-pooh concerns. For instance, on phthalates they say, "Gosh, these have been used for 50 years safely. We've known they leach out for 50 years, and we're not seeing any gross epidemics, so what's the problem?" And the science, to be fair, is still evolving and is still uncertain.
My concern is that there are red flags from different directions, from animal studies, from epidemiological studies, from the few human studies that have been done. And when you add those all up, they're suggestive of a problem. And the industry has tended to nitpick at studies and take each one as its own separate entity, which is the kind of strategy that the tobacco industry also used to fight claims that tobacco can cause lung cancer. People have called it the strategy of selling doubt, and it's quite effective.
TH: The other thing that you talk about is the presence of plastic in the environment. Plastic doesn't break down, it just breaks up into tiny pieces. What's the state of the plastic that's freely floating around?
Freinkel: There's a lot of plastic in the ocean. Nobody can really tell you how much. I've seen statistics all over the map-and I would be suspect of any of them-but there is a lot of plastic in the ocean. Most of the debris in the ocean is plastic, precisely because of the fact that it doesn't break down.
We have this vision of these giant islands of plastic trash. That is not what you find out there. What you find is actually worse than that because the plastic has broken into tiny little fragments, which can't be hauled back to shore for recycling and instead are now being ingested by fish, geting into the marine food web.
The Pacific Garbage Patch is the one collection of plastic that's gotten all the attention. But the features of the Pacificthat create that are present in all the world's oceans, and there are some folks who have gone out to look at the other gyres and found that all of them are accumulating plastic.