8.5 Petrochemicals: Toxicity of Plastics

Author: Alecia Bruce

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Plastics have pervaded our Earth and lives so effortlessly that many do not realize how often they use plastics throughout their days. Plastics are categorized under seven different codes but there are tens of thousands of different plastics. Some refer to plastic as a “cocktail of chemicals” (Blastic, 2021) due to them being created from a mixture of chemicals. Each plastic is made up of long chains of thousands of atomic units that are called monomers. This leads to the creation of polymers which is basically plastic materials.

Although many everyday products are advertised to be safe, one must be conscious of the fact that plastic is only as safe as the chemicals added to it. What makes plastics so harmful to our bodies is how easy it is for them to leach hazardous chemicals. Each plastic code has the possibility of leaching a variety of harmful chemicals. Many include endocrine disrupting chemicals and carcinogens which are detrimental to the human body. The possibility of leaching increases immensely if plastic products are exposed to sunlight.

Below is a list that breaks down what each plastic code is, what each contains and some examples of everyday objects that fall under these plastic codes.

Types of Plastics:

Code 1 (PET): Polyethylene Terephthalate

Releases endocrine disrupting chemicals like acetaldehyde over time, as well as toxic anatomy, use only once. PET is known to leach antimony trioxide and phthalates which are both dangerous to one’s health.

*Most commonly made into polyester fibres, also used in bottles for water or soda.

Code 02 (PE-HD): Polyethylene (high density)

Additives and softeners used in this plastic have never been tested for safety. Although this plastic is considered safe for use in limited quantities, studies have shown that PE-HD can leach nonylphenol. Exposure to sunlight can increase the possibility of leaching.

*Milk and detergent bottles, bottle caps, food storage containers, plastic bags and plastic surgery.

Code 03 (PVC): Polyvinylchloride

The most toxic plastic. PVC leaches phthalates, carcinogens, dioxins and more. PVC has been linked to reproductive problems, diabetes, organ toxicity and cancers. This plastic contains bisphenol A, lead, phthalates, dioxins, mercury, and cadmium. PVC can cause ADHD, allergies, endocrine disruption and asthma in children and can also contribute to causing a number of cancers. If this plastic is burnt, dioxins will be released which is known as one of the most toxic chemicals.

*Water pipes, siding, signs, insulation, furniture, pleather, shower curtains, medical tubes, blood bags and toys.

Code 04 (PE-LD): Polyethylene (low density)

Relatively chemically non-reactive, these plastics degrade very slowly and present a burden to the environment. PE-LD can leach nonylphenol if exposed to sunlight.

*Laminates, disk drives, snap on lids, six pack rings, playground slides, grocery bags and plastic wraps.

Code 05 (PP): Polypropylene

Additives and softeners used in plastic have never been tested for safety. Although it is relatively safer and stable it can still possibly leach plastic additives. PP has been linked with causing occupational asthma.

*Packaging, textiles, carpets, stationary, laboratory and medical equipment, molded shapes and diapers.

Code 06 (PS): Polystyrene

-These plastics leach extremely toxic brominated flame retardants over their entire lifespan. This includes styrene which is a carcinogen which can lead to the harm of one’s brain and nervous system and possibly harm one’s liver, lungs, genes and immune system.

*Packaging, foam, drink cups, insulation, rigid shapes like DVD cases or frames, and packaging peanuts.

Code 07 (O): Bisphenol A and others, contain polycarbonate (PC)

Bisphenol A mimics the effects of the hormone estrogen and is linked to infertility and developmental damage. Plastics with PC have the possibility of leaching BPA which can affect the production of sperm, affect one’s immunity, behaviour, cardiovascular health and neurological function. It can also cause both prostate and breast cancer. Bisphenol A is also sometimes responsible for obesity, resistance to chemotherapy, diabetes and metabolic disorders.

*A catch-all category for all other plastic types, includes bioplastics and multi layered resins, toxic Bisphenol A may also be in other plastics.

There are so many products that are used on a daily basis that may make some people’s lives easier, but they are in fact causing harm to their bodies by using these products that are made of so many chemicals. These chemicals cause sickness and diseases that can lead to death. No material is worth putting one’s health at risk.

RESOURCES

Freinkel, S. (2011). Plastic. Holland, Ohio: Dreamscape Media.

Toxicity of Plastics – Blastic. (2021). Retrieved 28 February 2021, from https://www.blastic.eu/knowledge-bank/impacts/toxicity-plastics/

 Lorea, K. (2021). Most Plastic Products Contain Potentially Toxic Chemicals, Study Reveals. Retrieved 28 February 2021, from https://www.consumerreports.org/toxic-chemicals-substances/most-plastic-products-contain-potentially-toxic-chemicals/

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