How does plastic pollution affect
our Health?

The problem with plastic waste is not a challenge that only affects our environment. We harm and endanger ourselves. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes less. One thing is certain: plastic finds its way into our bodies and that is unnatural. Strictly speaking, it accompanies us on a daily basis, through our food, clothing, hygiene articles, etc. We reap what we see.

Plastic is not only found in food

We pick up plastic particles in a wide variety of ways: Contaminated food, for example via mussels or small fish, but it has also been detected in sugar, salt or beer. In addition to food, drinking water and air, for example through tire abrasion or synthetic fibers, represent further sources of absorption. According to a study by the WWF, each person ingests an average of 1,769 plastic particles per week through water alone.

It is mainly absorbed orally or via inhalation. On average, plastic products that we consume contain around seven percent other additives such as plasticizers, stabilizers, flame retardants or fillers – many of which are harmful to health. They are usually not firmly bound in the plastic, escape over time and accumulate directly in our bedrooms, living rooms and children’s rooms through indoor air and house dust.

The great unknown in our body

The effects of the ingestion of plastic on our immune system and our health has not yet been clearly established. Different approaches to studies and different types of plastic make it very difficult for experts to achieve a consistent result.

One thing is certain: it is in our body and that in turn is unnatural. Research is already underway all over the world. All research groups, including the WHO, are extremely concerned about the exposure and impact of micro- and nanoplastics on human health. In the years to come, scientists will increasingly have to deal with the short and long-term damage we cause from plastic and what this looks like in detail.

Clothing: The everyday plastic problem

In total, textiles account for around 15% of the global production of plastic per year and around a third of the microplastic deposits in our oceans are due to the washing of clothes. This makes textile fibers one of the largest groups of substances when it comes to marine pollution.

How does it come about? Synthetic fibers that are washed in a washing machine are always a bit lighter afterwards. This means that every time tiny particles of the textile fibers loosen and end up as microplastics in seas and rivers. Many sewage treatment plants cannot, or only insufficiently, filter microplastics out of the water.

Polyester – practical, but problematic

Up to 70 percent of our clothing is not made of natural fibers such as cotton or silk, but of polyester. Its synthetic fibers dry quickly and adapt well to the body. But: With every wash cycle, the clothing loses fibers in the form of microplastics: a study from 2018 estimates fiber abrasion during textile washing in Germany at around 77 grams per person, annually.

It is currently assumed that most of the fibers will loosen during the first wash of a new item of clothing. Fibers rub off more easily on rough surfaces. We also have to add fluff from the environment that sticks to our clothes.

Chemicals are a health hazard

But not only washing cycles are problematic. According to the Plastic Atlas 2019, between 20,000 and 40,000 different chemicals are used to treat and dye clothing. Some of them are carcinogenic, mutagenic and toxic to reproduction.

Workers, 70% women, who come into contact with certain chemicals, flame retardants, dyes and other additives, for example, have an increased risk of miscarriages. A link between formaldehyde and deaths from leukemia has also been demonstrated.

Our hygiene: plastic has two faces

Plastic is not the devil. In the area of ​​our hygiene it is an advantage in many areas and in any case indispensable in medicine. Unfortunately, the fact that the production of various plastic products results in some hygiene or health problems.

From mascara (here the ingredients are even synthetic) and eye shadow to lipsticks to deodorants, shaving foam or sun creams. Plastic particles are ubiquitous in our bathrooms. We have not even included the associated packaging here. Packaging waste itself makes up the largest proportion of all plastic waste.

Here and there and everywhere

There are plastic particles in liquid detergents, such as polyethylene (PE). This substance is very inexpensive and can be used in many ways. Due to its advantageous properties, PE is one of the most frequently used plastics alongside polypropylene (PP) or polyethylene terephthalate (PET)

The same applies to shampoos, shower gels or creams, as film images or binders. The substance is also used in peelings, as the small particles are suitable as abrasives to rub off old flakes of skin. Cleaning rags and sponges are also made from highly developed plastic fibers. When used, small particles are detached and then end up in the wastewater.

We make ourselves sick

In private households, we use most packaging once and also use various products for a maximum of a few months. Due to our excessive / disproportionate consumption, garbage is produced faster and faster. And packaging waste makes up by far the largest share of all plastic waste.

According to estimates, not even ten percent of the plastic ever produced was recycled.

What we often forget are the health risks faced by people who deal with all of our waste on a daily basis. People who work in, for example, improper landfills or live near burning landfills. Dependent on water polluted by garbage or chemicals.

Waste management: case study mosquitoes

Poor waste management also increases the risk of illness through other points where one does not suspect a direct connection. Mosquitoes have their breeding grounds in stagnant or slowly flowing waters. And there are also those where you don’t immediately think about it. In junkyards. For example, where rainwater can collect. Open containers, clogged drainage ditches, tires, cans, bottles, etc. According to the WHO, malaria is one of the five most common causes of death for children under the age of 5.

But this is by no means a problem that only occurs in tropical regions or Africa. We should not underestimate the weather and temperature changes that climate change will bring with it in Europe in the future.