Plastics pollution led to $250 billion in disease over one year


Chemicals leaching from plastics are leaving Americans notably sicker and poorer, according to a new study.

In 2018 alone, the hormone-disrupting effects of plastics in the nation’s food and water led to a quarter of a trillion dollars in additional healthcare costs, according to findings published on Thursday in the Journal of the Endocrine Society.

That’s the equivalent of 5 percent of U.S. health care costs and more than 1 percent of the national gross domestic product (GDP), the New York University researchers found.

To put that number in context, 2018 saw a year-over-year GDP growth of about 3 percent, a third of which chemicals like PFAS, phthalates and biophenols ate up.

The surge in plastics production represents “a dangerous and unnatural experiment,” Leonardo Trasande, a pediatrician at NYU’s School of Medicine, said.

“We are coming to reckon with the reality that this is an urgent human health problem,” he added.

By interfering with the chemical messengers governing the human body, micro and nanoplastics led to a stark increase in conditions like obesity, pre-term birth, cancer and heart disease, researchers found.

“Hormones are the signalling molecules underlying basic biological functions: temperature, metabolism, salt, sugar and sex,” Trasande said.

“When these hormones are hacked, there are a broad array of consequences, cradle to grave,” he added, with particularly pernicious impacts on “the developing brains” of young children.

In all cases, the scientists studied chemicals that can leach directly from intact plastics into food, unlike micro- and nanoplastics, which are produced when plastics to break down. 

Because their tiny size facilitates the transfer of chemicals out of plastic particles, however, Trasande called plastic particles “carrier pigeons” for these hormone disrupting chemicals.

Most of those costs ($161 billion) came from polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are chemicals used as flame retardants in electronics, furniture and textiles.

These can easily enter the environment, becoming more concentrated as they move through the food chain.

About half as much, an estimated $67 billion, came from phthalates, an additive used to make plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) more durable and flexible.

Because of that property, phthalates are often used in products ranging from food packaging to the plastic films used in greenhouses, from which chemicals can leach directly into food.

Because they interfere with the body’s ability to produce and process fats, phthalates contribute to obesity and diabetes. 

But they can also mimic sex hormones in a way that leads to testicular and breast cancer.

Finally, about $22 billion in health impacts came from Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS), a set of new plastics derived from coal tar notable for their ability to resist heat, water, stains and grease.

As such, PFAS are commonly used in products like disposable food packaging and takeout containers and industrial food processing.

But the same qualities that make PFAS useful also make it very difficult for the body to break down, which is why the compounds are known as “forever chemicals.”

And scientists have linked them to diseases from cancers to liver and kidney problems to low birth weight in children to disruptions to the thyroid gland, something Trasande said is particularly concerning in the case of prenatal exposure, because thyroid hormones are “crucial to a baby’s brain development.”

The scientists emphasized that actual impacts of plastic pollution are likely far higher than those found in the study.

That’s because they restrained their search to just the best documented costs, from the best documented diseases, from just a handful of the most clearly pernicious plastic chemicals.

These findings are therefore “an underestimate of an underestimate of an underestimate,” Trasande said.

The team also emphasized that there is a clear solution, both in personal and policy terms: that for all chemicals but PFAS, people and societies can drastically reduce their exposure quite quickly by cutting their use of nonessential plastics.

Trasande pointed to the famous scene in the 1967 film “The Graduate,” in which an older relative advises Dustin Hoffman’s character to consider a future in “Plastics.”

Before that movie came out, “we used glass and stainless steel more widely, without consequences for the ability of human living,” Trasande said.

“There are essential uses for plastic, not what we’re debating. We’re talking nonessential uses that have exploded.”

He pointed to “the proverbial cucumber in the plastic wrap,” or disposable plastic devices sealed in a layer of disposable plastic.

But ultimately, the scientists emphasized the importance of securing a binding deal through a specific political process, the ongoing and broadly popular U.N. attempt to secure a treaty to drastically reduce global plastic pollution.

As The Hill reported, this is a process that the fossil fuel industry is attempting to steer away from any discussion of bans of dangerous chemicals, or any kind of reduction in plastic production.

That push comes as the fossil fuel industry, which plans to dramatically increase plastics production in order to make up for declines in its market share amid the growth of renewables, according to research from the Beyond Plastics program at Bennington College.

While the plastics treaty process has focused on costs to the environment, however, it’s just as important for negotiators and regulators to focus on human health impacts, the scientists said.

For Trasande, the dynamic is something like a treadmill of plastic-induced disease: as plastic polymers and additives are found to be toxic, the industry generates new ones — and around the process goes.

“We continue to identify human health consequences for new and replacement chemicals,” he said. 

“But at some level, you have to take a step back and say, ‘one percent of GDP is being wasted on the human health impacts of an industry that makes money off people’s backs.’”

That, he said, “is a problem. I don’t think people quite appreciate that, or the need to speak out about that.”

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