This week’s campaign blog features Frederikke Magnussen’s reflections on why urgent action is needed to tackle the growing health crisis caused by plastic.
THE US Surgeon General’s 1964 report on smoking and lung cancer was a landmark moment for public health. Surgeon General Luther Terry, the US Government’s top medical spokesman, told the world’s media that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer and probably heart disease. Terry was repeating a truth that many had known for decades, but few had acted upon.
After the first links between tobacco and lung cancer were identified just before the outbreak of the First World War, it took the US Government almost half a century to act. For decades, the tobacco industry had sought to discredit a growing body of evidence linking tobacco to cancer. In the intervening period, millions of smokers died prematurely as a result of using a highly-toxic product that they were assured was safe.
Fast forward to 2017, and we find ourselves in the midst of a fresh public health crisis. Despite a wealth of studies raising grave concerns about plastic’s links to chronic health problems, government and industry is failing to sit up and listen. Do we really want to risk being the generation that could have tackled the plastic health crisis but didn’t? Come 2050, will we be able to live with ourselves in the knowledge that we ignored the evidence staring us in the face?
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical currently used in the manufacture of plastic water bottles. BPA can leach from packaging into food and drink products. Worryingly, a raft of studies conducted over the past 20 years now show BPA to be a potent toxin even at very low doses. The American National Institutes of Health (NIH) in September 2008 warned that BPA may pose risks to human development.
Researchers at Stanford University in 2015 found potentially dangerous levels of BPA traces in meals served to school children in the US. BPA can disrupt the hormonal development of infants and young children, increasing their risk of cancer later in life. Despite a successful campaign to introduce tighter regulation of BPA in the US, European children remain completely exposed to the dangers of BPA.
Leaching of phthalate chemicals used in plastic packaging into food may also pose a real threat to health. In 2014, a US Government advisory panel report raised serious concerns about phthalates’ links to cancer.
The scale of the plastic health crisis is truly shocking. A study by the University of Ghent last year revealed that Britons who eat seafood risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic annually. According to researchers at Plymouth University, fish stocks are now so contaminated that one third of fish caught off the coast of South West England is thought to contain plastic.
A UN report warned last year that people who consume plastic-contaminated fish may be exposed to chemicals that can cause poisoning, infertility, and endocrine disruption. The report considered the effects of adult consumption of plastic-contaminated fish, indicating that the outlook for children who eat fish may be even worse.
Plastic is often portrayed as the perfect fit for our hectic way of life. It is cheap, convenient, and readily available day and night. But are we really prepared to sacrifice the health of our children for the sake of a slightly easier life?
Since mass consumption of plastic began in the 1950s, our planet has been forced to bear the incredible strain of endless reams of throwaway packaging. Despite decades of unsustainable consumption, fortunately we’re yet to go past the point of no return. We have all the tools necessary to be the generation that ends the scandal of plastic pollution.
Earlier this year, I joined forces with my friend Sian Sutherland in a bid to call time on the madness of unfettered plastic consumption. Together we co-founded A Plastic Planet with a view to persuading UK supermarkets to introduce a Plastic Free Aisle. It’s clear that if supermarkets take decisive steps to reduce their plastic footprint, we can begin to mitigate the growing threat to health posed by throwaway packaging. A Plastic Free Aisle would help to create a healthier future for generations to come.
Plastic pollution is the new smoking. With the body of evidence linking plastic to serious health problems growing year-on-year, we simply cannot afford to put off doing the right thing.
Frederikke Magnussen is Co-Founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet, the campaign for a Plastic Free Aisle in supermarkets.