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Report led by Boston College researchers calls for plastics regulation to protect people's health

Recycled plastic bottles. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Recycled plastic bottles. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

An international commission led by researchers at Boston College published a sweeping report Tuesday that says plastics — which have become ubiquitous in our daily lives and our environment — are causing such harm to our health, it’s time for global leaders to work together to regulate them.

The Minderoo-Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health is made up of scientists, clinicians and policy analysts from around the world. It formed last year after the United Nations Environment Assembly adopted a resolution that calls for the first-ever legally binding international treaty on plastic to be forged by 2024.

In a statement, the Plastics Industry Association said that plastics are safe, and any international agreement should emphasize recycling and recovery methods that reduce plastic waste. They also touted the many uses of plastics, and said alternative materials would increase overall consumption of energy and other resources, leading to more carbon emissions.

Single-use plastics such as water bottles, shopping bags and food containers make up more than one-third of all plastics today, according to the report.

Dr. Philip Landrigan of Boston College chairs the commission. He’s a pediatrician and epidemiologist whose previous research led to major changes surrounding lead and pesticides.

“I’m a pediatrician, and I trained at Boston Children’s [Hospital], and I’ve always thought that we have a responsibility to protect children because they’re the most vulnerable members of our society,” Landrigan said. “We’ve reduced lead exposure. We’ve made some progress in controlling pesticide exposure. But the manufacture of commercial chemicals, the manufacture of plastics — which are really a type of commercial chemical — is just completely out of control. It’s an almost totally unregulated environment.”

Landrigan directs the Global Observatory on Planetary Health at Boston College. He spoke with WBUR’s Lynn Jolicoeur.

Below are highlights from their conversation, which have been lightly edited.

Interview Highlights

On why scientists are feeling a sense of urgency about plastics now:

“The urgency here comes from the fact that production of plastic is rapidly accelerating. We’ve made eight billion metric tons of plastic since the end of World War II, but more than half of that has been made in the last 20 years. And the production rate is projected to treble by between 2050 and 2060.

“You have to understand that 99% of plastic comes from coal and oil and gas. And the very same companies that extract coal and oil and gas from out of the ground are also the companies that make plastic and that make fuels. Global demand for carbon fuels is going down as the world slowly goes greener. Yet at the same time, the fossil carbon companies have huge reserves of coal and oil and gas, and they need to find markets for those. One of the markets to which they’re pivoting are plastics.”

On the different ways we’re exposed to plastic and how the chemicals from it get into our bodies:

“People in this country are exposed to the toxic chemicals in plastic at every stage of the plastic lifecycle. So, for example, the people who live in small towns in [states including] Pennsylvania or Oklahoma, where fracking is widespread, are exposed to all the toxic chemicals that are released into the air during fracking — which is the first step, really, in plastic manufacture.

“And then the people who live near the factories that produce plastic are exposed to the toxic chemicals that those factories vent into the air. Those of us who use plastic every day in our lives, we and our children are exposed to chemicals that leach out of plastic during use, into our food, into our drinking water, from our clothing.”

On the health impacts:

“Many of the [more than 10,000] chemicals that are in plastic are highly toxic. They include chemicals that can cause cancer. They include chemicals that can damage the developing brains of children in the womb. They include chemicals that can disrupt endocrine function and immune function. And exposures to these chemicals during the nine months of pregnancy and in the first couple of years of childhood are especially dangerous, because even very, very small doses of exposure to these toxic chemicals in early life can damage a child’s health over the next seven or eight decades.

“It’s absolutely true that there is still much we do not know about the hazards of plastics, but we do know a lot. … Just because there are still pieces of knowledge that we lack, that should not be used as an excuse to delay action. We can’t just wait for more research.”

On what we should do as individuals and families to limit our use of plastics and reduce our bodies’ exposure to the chemicals in plastics:

“I think that we as individuals should do what we can. We should try to switch from plastic disposables to glass or metal containers, for example … in our homes. … As a pediatrician, one of my mantras is never microwave in plastic, because when you heat the plastic up, that accelerates the movement of toxic chemicals out of the plastic container and into the food. What you need to do is take the food out of the plastic container and put it into a glass or a ceramic container before you put it in the microwave.”

On what he hopes to see in a global plastics treaty:

“First and foremost, an agreed-upon global cap on plastic production, just as we have agreed-upon caps on greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement. Secondly, steps need to be taken to reduce the toxicity of the chemicals that go into plastic. Thirdly, we need to find better ways to manage plastic waste. We need to increase the recycling rate from 8% to 10 times that.

“And fossil fuel companies and the companies that make plastic need to be financially responsible for their products even after they sell them, which means they have to have take-backs or deposits, or pay into a remediation fund to handle plastic waste after it’s created. We are arguing that the industry has to take responsibility for the cradle-to-grave handling of the materials that they produce.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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