New Technical Report From UNEP Highlights The Impact Of Toxic Chemicals In Plastic and Why We Need To Take Action Now
by Rudy Sanchez on 05/30/2023 | 3 Minute Read
A new study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) highlights the health and environmental impact of thousands of chemicals found in plastics.
The report identifies over 13,000 chemicals associated with plastic production, including substances that it says are concerning due to their high toxicity, including alkylphenols, alkylphenol ethoxylates, biocides, bisphenols, flame retardants, per/poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), phthalates, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, some metals and metalloids, UV stabilizers, and many other non-intentionally added substances (NIAS). NIAS are impurities in starting materials, unwanted by-products, contaminants from recycling processes, and the materials resulting from polymer breakdown.
UNEP’s study uses a set of credible and publicly available research, and it aims to provide a negotiation resource in the development of a legally-binding plastic pollution instrument based on the UN Environment Assembly resolution 5/14.
Plastics of concern were found across various products and industries, including children’s toys, aquaculture, synthetic textiles, medical devices, electronics, furniture, household goods, personal care products, building materials, and vehicles. In other words, almost everything we rely on for modern life produces plastic which is toxic to the environment and ourselves.
Another key takeaway is the increased risk to the health of women and children. While men are also subject to harmful effects of hazardous exposure, such as infertility, women are most vulnerable to long-term adverse effects of exposure during puberty, pregnancy, lactation, and menopause. Furthermore, plastic toxicity can even have an impact on future generations. Children subject to fetal exposure can experience future neurodevelopment and neurobehavioral disorders.
Human exposure isn’t just limited to plastic in the environment. Occupational exposure to harmful chemicals is especially concerning, as people take in these chemicals at work via inhalation, ingestion, and dermal contact. Men exposed to Bisphenol A (BPA) at work, for example, have consistently higher rates of sexual dysfunction versus workers not exposed to BPA, the study notes.
What's most revelatory in the study, however, is how awful the material is from start to finish. Plastic is not only toxic in the environment, where it degrades into smaller particles and releases harmful chemicals that can travel great distances and stay in the water and ground, but it is also a danger at all stages of its long life cycle. Plastic starts being noxious from the moment raw materials get extracted, then in the production of synthetic polymers, and when disposed of and improperly managed.
The authors make several recommendations to reduce environmental and human harm and move to a circular economy. Suggestions include preventing and minimizing the use of toxic chemicals, increasing awareness and access to information about harmful chemicals in plastics, making safer and more sustainable alternatives to plastic readily available, addressing chemicals of concern through building more capacity and partnerships, and more research and monitoring around chemicals of concern.
While the recommendations laid out by the UNEP study seem straightforward, all will require significant efforts at the national and international levels, with many stakeholders coming together to invest in infrastructure and research to replace toxic chemicals in plastics and create improved alternatives.
There is increased public interest in reducing plastic consumption, and some brands are moving to more sustainable substrates and refillable systems. But at the same time, some of the biggest producers of single-use plastic, like McDonald’s, are spending millions to fight regulations aimed at reducing the use of plastic packaging.
The study is quick to point out that the technical report is not exhaustive due to a variety of factors, including the quickly growing and large volume of related research, nor did the authors comprehensively review all the available environmental and occupational epidemiological literature. The UNEP hopes this technical report serves as a base to start taking action against toxic plastic-related chemicals.