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Your Health Depends on the Environment's Health

Maximizing your health and fitness is a complex process. I have shared posts about aspects of health that are in your control, namely, fitness and diet. However, there are many things that affect our well-being for which we have less or no control at all. This discusses one of the important ones.

Plastics are a relatively recent human invention. According to Wikipedia, the world's first fully synthetic plastic was Bakelite, invented in New York in 1907, by Leo Baekeland, who coined the term "plastics".

In the years since that discovery, plastic use has exploded.

It didn't take long for manufacturers to take advantage of the lightweight, colorful, and cheap materials needed to make many kinds of plastics. Plastics have replaced heavier and more expensive materials such as metals and glass. They have, quite frankly, revolutionalized our lives. We can't go back to a pre-plastic era. It isn't practical or probably even feasible. Plastics are used in every industry imaginable in some way or other. Think of the variety of toys available before and after plastics.

In short, the plastics industry has evolved into a multi-billion dollar business that continues to grow.

As with most things in life, along with the good comes the bad. There is no global policy or education about the various types of plastics, how to use and dispose of each, and their effects on the health of the planet (including us). We now know that one consequence is the plastic contamination of humans, animals, water, and soil.

There is a lot of confusion and misinformation about what plastics are recyclable and, of those, how many are actually recycled? It must also be stated that recycling is not going to solve our plastic pollution problem.

The data below comes from a presentation by Master Watershed Steward, Carol Armstrong, PhD.

Plastics cause disease in all species, including humans. The problems vary depending on the type of plastic and where it lodges within our bodies. Cancers, immune system and sexual dysfunction, cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, hypertension, thyroid issues, cognitive and behavioral disorders can all be caused or exacerbated by plastics in our bodies. Since there is not a clear-cut way to attribute disease to a plastic, we (and certainly the manufacturers) tend to ignore or minimize the danger of plastics in our environment.

A few plastics have captued the limelight. One highly publicized concern has been with Bisphenol A or BPA. For years, this was used in food cans and plastic storage containers, some dental sealents and composites. BPA causes; kidney disease, diabetes II, autism, ADHD, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s. (Zeliger 2013). More recently you may have noticed flags on cans and plastic containers that advertise BPA Free. This is the result of the recognition of BPA dangers, unfortunately after damage has been do.

Microplastics are suspected to be present in all parts of the food chain from mountaintops to the bottom of oceans. Bioaccumulation leads to higher levels of contamination. Biodegradation does not occur because so few organisms use it as a food source.

Microplastics were found in 81% of tap water samples in the U.S. The average person may ingest over 5,800 particles of synthetic debris from sea salt, tap water, and beer each year, with most coming from tap water. There are no federal standards for the amount of plastic that seafood can have when sold for food.

Plastics also linger in our homes. ~30% of indoor dust is plastic microfibers (Dris et al., 2017). Sources of airborne microplastics include synthetic textiles from clothing and household items. So we are breathing and eating it every day. I recently had a rude awakening. Dryer vent residue is listed as a compostable material. However, I was informed that if I wear or use any textiles other than pure cotton, I cannot compost dryer lint as it contains plastics, not a desireable component in compost!

What can You Do ?

One easy thing to do is eliminate single-use plastics, those that are used and then immediately thrown away, like water bottles, plastic bags, plastic wrap. This is easy to accomplish. There are alternatives available.

Plastics in our everyday life

Becoming familiar with the properties, recyclability, toxicity, and prevalence of various plastics can help you make decisions when shopping, recycling, doing home upgrades etc..

PE = Polyethylene, High-Density (HDPE), Low-Density (LDPE) and Linear Low-Density. HDPE is strong and resistant to moisture and chemicals and is used in molded plastics. LDPE is softer and more flexible and is used in plastic/cling wrap, sandwich and bread bags, bubble wrap, garbage bags, grocery bags and beverage cups. Polyethylene accumulates more organic contaminants than other plastics and is the most popular one used.

PPE = Polypropylene, one of the most durable types of plastic. It is more heat resistant than some others, and is used in food packaging and food storage for holding hot items. It’s flexible enough to allow for slight bending, but it retains its shape and strength for a long time. Examples: Straws, bottle caps, prescription bottles, hot food containers, packaging tape, disposable diapers.

PET or PETE = Polyethylene Terephthalate, is lightweight, strong, typically transparent and is often used in food packaging and fabric (polyester). Examples: Beverage bottles, Food bottles/jars, and polyester clothing or rope.

PVC = Polyvinyl Chloride (often just called vinyl) is used in construction, plumbing, high technology products, medical products. It is also one of the most toxic to human health.

PS = Polystrene or Styrofoam, is that very familiar white foam-like plastic that seems to stick to everything. It is quite toxic and leaches into food and storage containers. I am making the assumption that this substance is not a stranger to anyone.

Most people are familiar with the term Nylon, and Polyester, as these are the majority of what constitutes our clothing and other fabrics in our homes. These are grouped together for a family of synthetic polymers, allowing manufacturers to use a simple designation to display on tags for customers. Nylon is a silk-like thermoplastic, generally made from petroleum, that can be melt-processed into fibers, films, or shapes. Polyester is a category of polymers containing PET. There are many others, often combinations of those above.

The image below provides a great visual for the relationship between the type of plastic and the ability to recycle it. Check your local ordinances or laws for which plastics your community allows to be recycled and how to recycle them. Most people do not know or follow the rules. We are all responsible for understanding the guidelines in our communities and following them!

This image was copied directly from the article referenced above,

Think for a bit about how COVID exacerbated our plastics contamination and pollution. PPE (personal protective equipment), masks, gloves, needles, respirators, test kits, etc., increased plastic contamination of our waterways and soil. Many of these are single-use plastics. How about the millions of disposable diapers that are put into the trash system every year?

Keep in mind also that even if you do follow the rules, once the plastic leaves your possession it is out of your control and you don't know where it will end up. Dumping and illegal activities have caused mass contamination of our oceans, rivers, and lakes. Add this to insecticide and pesticide contamination and it should cause concern.

I will conclude this post by commenting on a question I have often asked and you may have as well. Although I intended this to be a "lighter" way to close, it didn't turn out that way!!🤪 What causes "new car smell"? You might not want to know. The smells are caused by Volatile Organic Compounds or VOCs, such as benzene, toluence, formaldehyde. You are smelling a previously trapped gas that escapes. There is no conclusive evidence that this causes human harm if exposure is limited but studies are ongoing. See Newsweek article.

If you spend many hours in your car, you may want to research this further.

We have to remain optimistic about what the future holds. Plastics aren't going away, quite the opposite. It is this that drives some brilliant scientists and entrepreneurs to research evolutionary ways to reduce the harm plastics cause. In the meantime it is up to us to do our part as individuals. Here are some of the things I am doing.

  1. Eat a vegan diet.

  2. Buy less and really think of the impact before purchasing something.

  3. Reduce, use more of, and compost unused food waste.

  4. Avoid plastic bags when possible and when I do get one; reuse, reuse,reuse,reuse it.

  5. Rely on reusable cups and dishes. I have eliminated paper goods and drinking liquids in paper or plastic cups.

  6. Use NO bottled water. I use filtered tap water. Even when traveling I will not buy bottled water.

  7. Buy local food that is not packaged and bring my own containers for produce. Even in food stores, I try to buy items that are displayed openly. Prepared foods and fast food stores/restaurants use a lot of plastic so I avoid these. It is a misconception that easy meals must be purchased. Everyone can make simple meals in the time it takes to order and pickup your fast/prepared food.

  8. Buy more clothing and home goods from consignment shops and from others selling these items.

  9. Educate/inform anyone who will listen!

  10. Wear a mask when cleaning and vacuuming to avoid breathing in plastic fibers.

Can you link your health issue(s) directly to plastic contamination? Probably not. Can you completely eliminate plastics from your life? Probably not. If you are reading this post and care about your health, do what you can and get involved or donate to organizations who are committed to working towards global solutions.

“Don’t expect to see a change if you don’t make one” Anon.

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