Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Let’s Get to the Heart of the Matter

Beach plastic trash at Freedom Island in the Philippines. (Greenpeace Philippines)

What impact do Microplastics and PFASs have on human health, and what can we do about it?

Janis Petzel, MD

Plastics

Let’s get to the heart of the matter: plastic pollutants are not good for your heart. Or your brain. Or your immune system, your reproductive organs, your liver, kidneys, blood vessels or hormone systems. Their presence all over the human body—both chemical and actual bits of plastic–sets off alarm bells for the body’s immune system and increases health risks for inflammation, cancer, and autoimmune problems.

Plastics are made from petroleum and tens of thousands of chemicals. They last almost forever. Plastic objects break into smaller and smaller pieces in a short period of time with use, abrasion, or exposure to sun. Plastic manufacturers and the fossil fuel industry (which are often one and the same, Exxon Mobil a prime example) pushed hard to promote single use plastics starting in the 1950s as a way to increase sales of their petrochemicals, all the while knowing these plastics could not be recycled.

So, now, Earths air, soil, water, and food chains are contaminated by these bits that range in size from nanoparticles the size of viruses (which you need an electron microscope to see), to microplastic particles visible to the eye or under a regular microscope (up to the size of a sesame seed). They get into our bodies by ingestion and inhalation. We eat them, drink them, and breathe them. In a 2024 study in PNAS, the authors note that for drinking water, “plastic contamination is confirmed in every step from the well to the bottle.”

We can’t eliminate plastics from water using plastic. For example, per PNAS, polyamide is “the most popular membrane material used in reverse osmosis,” and “polystyrene is the backbone material for ion exchange resins in water purification.” It’s ironic, but water filters themselves are known to release nanoparticles of these major contaminants in bottled water (but aren’t the only sources).

Health effects of common types of pollution. (Wikipedia Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication)

Nanoplastics are absorbed into the blood stream, where they are taken up by tissues all over the body. They are linked to diseases like diabetes and Parkinson’s Disease. We now know that microplastic pieces can also infiltrate the tissues and fluids in our bodies—blood, breast milk, feces, the liver, lungs, testes, and placenta.

Microplastics are now linked to bad outcomes from heart disease. According to a 2024 study in New England Journal of Medicine, people who have microplastic in their plaques (the gunk in the hardening of the arteries) are four to five times more likely to have heart attacks, strokes or to die than people who don’t have the plastic bits. The presence of microplastics in tissue correlates with an increase in inflammation, and with an intense response from immune cells, both of which increases risk for pathology and disease.

Microplastic pieces carry chemical toxins into our bodies. A sobering report from the Norwegian Research Council showed that there are at least 16,000 different chemicals in various plastics (3000 more than had previously been recognized), only 6% of which are monitored, but 25% of which are known to be hazardous to human health. (Particular types of plastic may be made from up to 1000 chemicals).

Each plastic type has a different recipe, which is why it is so difficult to recycle them, just as you can’t recycle a chocolate cake back to eggs, flour, and sugar. Once the plastic mixture has hardened, it takes heavy chemicals and high heat to separate it back to its original components, if it can be done at all. Almost no plastics are recyclable on any safe or practical level. (see the MCV You Tube on the Fraud of Plastic Recycling).

PFASs

PFASs (poly- and per-fluoroalkyl substances) are prime examples of chemical toxins that travel with plastics. According to a 2023 article in npj Clean Water, PFASs are “intricately connected to the global issue of plastic pollution as they co-occur with microplastics and other additives” such as phthalates and plasticizers that also raise concerns for human health risks.

PFASs are a family of thousands of different molecules used as flame retardants, fabric and paper coatings, surfactants, and non-stick coatings for kitchen pans and industrial machinery–which may be how toilet paper even from “green” companies gets contaminated with these chemicals.

According to a review of medical literature by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Mathematics, there is definite evidence for PFASs causing a decreased antibody response to vaccines; dyslipidemias like high cholesterol; decreased infant and child growth; and risk of kidney cancer. Limited data also showed an increased risk of breast cancer, pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia, ulcerative colitis, testicular cancer, and liver function alterations.

Ironically, it looks like the use of PFASs increased when older flame retardants were phased out due to public concerns, which demonstrates the whack-a-mole problem with plastics and PFASs. There are so many varieties, and such little incentive for corporations to be forthcoming with safety data, that it’s difficult for regulators or public health systems to track them.

Water and sewage treatment plants are not equipped at present to remove PFASs from wastewater. In fact, levels may be higher after treatment with chlorine, because some PFASs convert to even more stable forms that may last almost forever. There is a type of filter under development called MOF (metal-organic frameworks) that appears to be effective and scalable for city water systems, so fingers crossed, that will be available soon.

As of January 2024, New England states have spent $355 million to investigate, identify and mitigate PFAS in water and on farms according to saferstates.org, which barely scratches the surface for the damage done to people’s lives and health.

After the 3M Company decided to phase out manufacturing of PFASs in 2022 (with plans to stop completely by 2025), levels of PFASs in the environment went down to some extent. 3M is still in business, proving corporations can survive when they do the right thing.

To sum things up, the general use of plastics and related chemicals has to stop, but how? Individuals can take some steps to avoid plastics (see article on “What Can You Do” on p.20 in this edition of GET), but this is an expensive global problem that won’t go away without hard work and consensus. Manufacturers of plastics and toxic chemicals need to be held accountable, a gargantuan task fraught with politics, corporate resistance, and outright greenwashing, just like what we have seen with tobacco, opioids, petroleum and climate change. But legal remedies held corporations accountable before. We have to stay strong and do it again for plastics.

Janis Petzel, MD is a physician, grandmother and climate activist whose writing focuses on resilience, climate, and health. She lives in Islesboro, Maine where she advocates and acts for a fossil-fuel free future. She serves on the Islesboro Energy Team and is a Climate Ambassador for Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Caption

Beach plastic trash at Freedom Island in the Philippines (Greenpeace Philippines)

Health effects of common types of pollution. (Wikipedia Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication)

Source Links available in GET’s online posting of this article:

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Guidance on PFAS Exposure, Testing, and Clinical Follow-Up. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/26156.

 

https://climateintegrity.org/ Report: The Fraud of Plastic Recycling.

 

https://corporate.exxonmobil.com/what-we-do/materials-for-modern-living/advanced-chemical-products#:~:text=We%20produce%20a%20range%20of,energy%20use%2C%20emissions%20and%20waste. Exxon makes plastics, a prime example of the petroleum industry overlapping with plastic manufacturings. Plastics are fossil fuels.

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-024-00650-3?utm_source=Live+Audience&utm_campaign=ba3b0591f6-briefing-dy-20240307&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b27a691814-ba3b0591f6-49195471 March 6, 2024, by Marku Kozluov.

A summary of a recent study published in New England Journal of Medicine linking microplastics to heart attacks and strokes.

 

Microplastics found in blood vessels linked to greater risk of heart problems, study finds

BY ELAINE CHEN / MARCH 6, 2024 STAT

https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/plastic-particles-bottled-water#:~:text=The%20researchers%20found%20that%2C%20on,mostly%20focused%20on%20larger%20microplastics. Summary: Plastics particles (nano- and micro-) in bottled water are 10-100 times more prevalent than previously thought based on a new type of optical assessment technology. 9 out of 10 of these particles are nanoparticles, which easily pass into the bloodstream. Nanoplastic have been linked to many diseases including Parkinson’s Disease.

 

. PlastChem_State_of_the_Science_on_Plastic_Chemicals_Report.pdf Link to Norwegian Research Council Report on Plastics

 

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/plastics-contain-thousands-more-chemicals-than-thought-and-most-are-unregulated-report-finds-180983967/ Summary of Norwegian Research Council Report

https://www.reuters.com/science/chemicals-plastics-far-more-numerous-than-previous-estimates-report-says-2024-03-14/#:~:text=While%20the%20United%20Nations%20Environment,human%20health%20and%20the%20environment. Supplies a summary of the Norwegian Research Council Report on chemicals in plastics.

 

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/mar/13/toxic-forever-chemicals-pfas-toilet-paper

https://www.ecowatch.com/pfas-toilet-paper-forever-chemicals.html

 

https://nap.nationalacademies.org/resource/26156/PFAS%20Guidance%20Highlights.pdf

 

https://www.pressherald.com/2012/07/24/pingree-urges-tougher-toxin-laws_2012-07-25/

https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/2576

https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/06/22/remarks-president-bill-signing-frank-r-lautenberg-chemical-safety-2st

The Safe Chemical Law took years to pass and was finally signed into law by President Obama in 2016.

 

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2a0UE4qCWMTdVA4vnG7JcA

 

Sze Yee Wee & Ahmad Zaharin Aris Revisiting the “forever chemicals”, PFOA and PFOS exposure in drinking water npj Clean Water volume 6, Article number: 57 (2023). ww.nature.com/articles/s41545-023-00274-6

 

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fceng.2020.581487/full Metal-Organics-Framworks technology for water purification

 

https://www.saferstates.org/press-room/new-analysis-suggests-pfas-forever-chemicals-could-be-banned-in-more-uses-than-ever-in-2024/ This website has great maps on where legislation is happening. Per this website, as of Jan 2024, New England states have spent $355 million to investigate, identify and mitigate PFAS in water and on farms; NY state has spent $342 million and the whole US $2.9 Billion.

 

https://pfas.3m.com/pfas_uses#:~:text=3M%20will%3A,obligations%20during%20the%20transition%20period. 3M announced it plans to eliminate PFASs use and manufacturing by 2025.

 

Land et al. Environ Evid (2018) 7:4 https://doi.org/10.1186/s13750-017-0114-y What is the effect of phasing out long-chain per- and polyfuoroalkyl substances on the concentrations of perfuoroalkyl acids and their precursors in the environment? A systematic review Magnus Land1, Cynthia A. de Wit, Anders Bignert , Ian T. Cousins , Dorte Herzke , Jana H. Johansson and Jonathan W. Martin

Summary: When 3M began to phase out certain PFASs in 2022, the detectable levels in the environment went down to some extent.

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