Plastic. The word is not a threatening one, but did you know that the topic of environmental plastic and the damage it causes was a recent topic at the International Seminars on Planetary Emergencies where scientists come together to discuss the greatest threats to humankind? It’s true and interestingly enough, prior topics included terrorism and nuclear holocaust.
And there’s good reason why this topic has come to the fore. While our oceans give us many healthful items (such as fish—so be sure to check out this week’s “favorites from the sea”), unfortunately huge portions of our oceans have become plastic-laden cesspools. And the adverse health effects of plastics on marine life and the human body are mounting. In fact, there is one area in the North Pacific that is brimming with debris and measures twice the size of the state of Texas. Sailors call this area “the doldrums,” while scientists refer to it as the “Eastern Garbage Patch”—and it constitutes hundreds of miles of watery trash.
But the North Pacific is not the only area like this. There are four more areas that constitute a proverbial trash tsunami: the South Pacific, the North Atlantic, the South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean. All together, these areas cover 40 percent of the oceans—and that’s a quarter of the earth’s surface.
The problem doesn’t stop at just being an environmental eyesore, however. It has also entered the food chain—with a vengeance. Dead seabirds have washed ashore and their bodies are packed with items such as bottle caps, cigarette lighters, and other assorted and colorful plastic scraps. The seabirds are not the only sea-faring creatures affected, however. Everything from whales to plankton can feel plastic’s stranglehold—resulting (annually) in the deaths of a million seabirds, 100,000 marine animals, and countless fish in the North Pacific alone.
Those are terrible statistics, but humans are also victims of this sea of plastic and there are startling and mounting findings that we are constantly ingesting plastic and that it is disrupting gene activity. Our exposure to plastics can come in many forms, too, including microwave popcorn, packaged foods, flame retardants, vehicle interiors, moldings, floor coverings, computers, paints, cosmetics, varnishes, and even the coating on time-released pharmaceuticals—to name a few.
These plastics can contain a variety of chemicals, including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)—a likely carcinogen; poly-brominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)—which can cause liver and thyroid toxicity, reproductive problems, and memory loss; and phthalates found with another chemical called bisphenol A (BPA).We produce 6 million pounds of BPA each year and, along with other chemicals, it has been implicated in disrupting the endocrine system—a system of hormones and glands that influence virtually every organ and cell—and mimicking estrogen.
For marine life, this has resulted in male fish and seagulls which have developed female sex organs; for land life, this can mean lowered fertility rates, prostate and breast cancers, insulin resistance, increased number and size of fat cells, and obesity. Exposure is especially damaging to pregnant women and to the unborn.
Frederick vom Saal, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia, in a scientific paper he coauthored says that, in his studies, BPA made rodents fat and made their insulin output soar and then crash into a state of resistance—paving the way to diabetes. He says, “These findings suggest that developmental exposure to BPA is contributing to the obesity epidemic that has occurred during the last two decades in the developed world, associated with the dramatic increase in the amount of plastic being produced each year.”
It’s no wonder the plastic sludge, along with other threats, has become a closely-watched global concern.