Gut check: the new cri­sis of plas­tic in the hu­man body

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - OPINION - RICK SMITH

Ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Broadbent In­sti­tute and co-au­thor, with Bruce Lourie, of Slow Death by Rub­ber Duck

Ihave an em­bar­rass­ing se­cret to share. About once a month, late at night so my neigh­bours won’t see, I find my­self eas­ing my 6-foot 6inch frame into the top of our fam­ily’s re­cy­cling blue bin in the al­ley be­side our house. Stand­ing at more than a me­tre tall and con­tain­ing the equiv­a­lent of six blue boxes, the bin is enor­mous – the largest the City of Toronto of­fers. The prob­lem is that, de­spite its ca­pa­cious in­te­rior, it’s be­come too small to con­tain the re­cy­clables that our fam­ily of four, in­clud­ing two pre­teen boys, reg­u­larly dis­gorges.

So, on a more reg­u­lar ba­sis than I care to ad­mit, there I stand, jump­ing up and down to com­pact the bin’s over­flow­ing con­tents to buy us a few ex­tra days of dis­posal. The (mea­gre) up­side of this grue­some ex­pe­ri­ence is that it al­lows me to ex­am­ine – up close and­per­sonal– the­sum­to­talofmy fam­ily’s de­tri­tus. Un­sur­pris­ingly, vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing squish­ing be­neath my feet is plas­tic. Plas­tic bot­tles, plas­tic wrap, plas­tic bags and the small plas­tic sar­cophagi that en­case ev­ery leafy green at our lo­cal su­per­mar­ket are the most com­mon items: a mi­cro­cosm of our so­ci­ety’s ac­cel­er­at­ing plas­tic ad­dic­tion.

Re­cently, we got a taste of just how pro­foundly this ad­dic­tion is start­ing to bite.

In late Oc­to­ber, in a lit­tle-no­ticed pre­sen­ta­tion given by an Aus­trian re­searcher at a med­i­cal con­fer­ence in Vi­enna, the first ev­i­dence of plas­tic pol­lu­tion in the hu­man body was an­nounced.

On a scale of one to 10 in terms of sci­en­tific sig­nif­i­cance, this dis­cov­ery is an 11.

Us­ing a new test­ing tech­nol­ogy, the re­search team sam­pled hu­man-stool sam­ples from eight vol­un­teers around the globe and found mi­cro plas­tic par­ti­cles in ev- ery­one. All the dif­fer­ent plas­tics present in my re­cy­cling bin – such as polypropy­lene, PET (what ev­ery dis­pos­able wa­ter bot­tle is made of) and poly­styrene – were rep­re­sented.

Although the re­searchers were typ­i­cally cau­tious in their in­ter­pre­ta­tion, they pointed out the ob­vi­ous enor­mous im­pli­ca­tions for hu­man health. Spoiler alert: It’s dis­as­trous. While they have only, so far, found mi­croplas­tics in the gut, the small­est par­ti­cles are cer­tainly ca­pa­ble of en­ter­ing the hu­man blood­stream, lym­phatic sys­tem and may even reach the liver.

It’s only a mat­ter of time be­fore fur­ther stud­ies find plas­tics em- bed­ded through­out our bod­ies.

Why is this hap­pen­ing? Be­cause plas­tics are fill­ing up the food chain. It’s es­ti­mated that 2 per cent to 5 per cent of plas­tics wind up in the oceans. Time and wave ac­tion breaks the ma­te­rial down into tiny par­ti­cles that have been found in tuna, lob­ster and shrimp. In fact, plas­tic par­ti­cles are now so per­va­sive they’ve been found in tap wa­ter, and many types of food, around the world.

So we eat and drink plas­tics on a daily ba­sis.

The com­po­nent chem­i­cals of plas­tics – such as bisphe­nol A (BPA) – have long been found in the­hu­man­body. Un­til­now, sci­en­tists thought this was be­cause th­ese chem­i­cals leached from com­monly used plas­tic items.

Lit­tle did we know that hu­mans are reg­u­larly in­gest­ing the plas­tic it­self.

The scale of plas­tic use is stun­ning. Glob­ally, we are now pro­duc­ing nearly 300 mil­lion tonnes of plas­tic ev­ery year, half of which is for sin­gle use. More than eight mil­lion tonnes of plas­tic is dumped into our oceans ev­ery year. If noth­ing is done, plas­tics in the ocean will out­weigh the amountoff­ishby2050. Cana­di­ans alone gen­er­ate more than three mil­lion tonnes of plas­tic waste ev­ery year, in­clud­ing 57 mil­lion plas­tic straws each day. Up to two bil­lion (yes, that’s “bil­lion” with a “b”) cof­fee cups are used by Cana­di­ans ev­ery year, most of which – com­plete with plas­tic lids – wind up in the trash.

Just a few weeks ago, the Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment took a bold step and voted to com­pletely ban sin­gle-use plas­tics from the Eu­ro­pean Union mar­ket by 2021. New Zealand has just banned the use of plas­tic bags. Canada needs to fol­low suit.

The most am­bi­tious ef­forts to dra­mat­i­cally re­duce plas­tic use are called for.

We re­ally have no op­tion. The plas­tic prob­lem is clear for all to see. There’s not enough room in my blue bin any more. There’s not enough room on this planet. And there’s cer­tainly not enough room in the seven bil­lion hu­man bod­ies we now know are the ul­ti­mate waste re­cep­ta­cles.

The scale of plas­tic use is stun­ning. Glob­ally, we are now pro­duc­ing nearly 300 mil­lion tonnes of plas­tic ev­ery year, half of which is for sin­gle use.

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