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Irish Mirror
Irish Mirror
Shauna Corr

World Environment Day: Irish doctor dubs plastic 'biggest uncontrolled biological experiment of the last 100 years'

An Irish doctor has described plastic as "basically the biggest uncontrolled biological experiment of the last 100 years".

This World Environment Day, the United Nations is calling for governments, businesses and people to beat plastic pollution.

We have reported widely on the impact plastic litter has on wildlife, marine life, our cities, towns and streets.

Read more: Otter found dead on Irish beach with beer ring cutting into neck

So to mark World Environment Day this year we are taking a look at how the material, which we use daily, is contaminating our bodies.

Scientists have been concerned about the health impacts of plastic for years. And for the first time last year, a study in the Netherlands found microplastics in the blood of 80 per cent of those they tested.

We spoke to consultant chemical pathologist, Dr Ana Rakovac, who’s based at Tallaght University Hospital Dublin, about what that could mean for our health.

She said: "Plastics are a problem. The problem is that under current European legislation a substance does not have to be proven to be harmless before it is allowed into mass production.

"An endocrine disruptor is a substance that our body sees as if it was a hormone (produced by our body).

"Endocrine disruptors in plastic can be seen by our bodies as female hormones, male hormones, anti-female hormones and anti-male hormones.

"There isn’t a one-size fits all description [and] they can impact the thyroid gland."

Dr Rakovac attended a conference in Istanbul in May, where experts from around the world gathered to talk about hormone health.

During that event, the European Society of Endocrinology revealed there are over 1,500 harmful chemicals in plastic that can affect hormones; causing cancer, obesity, diabetes, thyroid disease, osteoporosis and infertility.

Another report from the Minderoo-Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health in March outlined how over "10,000 synthetic chemicals, including phthalates, bisphenols, per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), brominated flame retardants and organophosphate flame retardants are integral components of plastics".

And how "the components leach out during daily use" with evidence showing "increasingly that many of them have neurotoxic, carcinogenic, immune and endocrine-disrupting impacts on human health".

Since microplastics are so small, they can contaminate "marine species, birds, food and drinking water".

But with the redirection of fossil fuels from cars, the Commission says "plastic production is expected to treble in the next three decades".

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are also found in pesticides, biocides, food contact materials and cosmetics like shampoo and make-up.

Endocrine Society scientists say: "The incidence of several conditions including neurodevelopmental, reproductive and metabolic disorders, as well as some cancers, has increased over past decades with evidence that exposure to EDCs has contributed to this increase."

They are also concerned "human health is at risk because the current extensive scientific knowledge on EDCs and their health effects is not effectively translated to regulatory policies that fully protect populations from EDC exposures".

And they have called for regulations to protect the most vulnerable, which includes, but is not limited to "foetuses, children, pregnant women, adolescents, and the elderly - from irreversible effects".

All three are now calling for urgent action from policy makers to control the rising tide of plastics to protect people and the environment.

Dr Rakovac added: "We should be pushing our elected representatives to support changes at a European level and the REACH legislation... to request that all the substances that are released into general consumption are tested for effects on health before they are released.

"There are thousands of components of plastic and we know what about 700 of those do to us - for the rest we don’t even have data.

"Plastic is basically the biggest uncontrolled biological experiment of the last 100 years.

"We can expect the onslaught of more plastic until we create laws that curb it."

The World Health Organisation reiterated its call for a crackdown on plastic in 2019.

Countries around the world are also meeting this week in Paris to continue discussions on a Global Plastics Treaty.

But fossil fuel interests, who’ve set their sights on plastic production as demand for oil, gas and coal wanes amid climate concerns, are trying to weaken it.

As world leaders battle it out and try to reach agreement, there are some things you can do to protect yourself from plastic contaminants.

Dr Rakovac says endocrinologists advise:

  • Avoid plastic packaging and use glass or stainless steel containers and bottles
  • Drink tap water instead of bottled water
  • Never microwave plastic
  • Improve indoor air quality
  • Choose care products and cosmetics wisely


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