Can we rest assured that with the recycling of plastics and new regulations, there won’t be any awful surprises for our health?
Personally, I have been working since 2007 to replace polluting and sometimes dangerous plastic with effective bio-polymers. It is a long and complex battle. Very difficult to win also because the market is huge and constantly growing. But there are no alternative solutions. Either the biopolymer companies will begin to present materials that are truly degradable in nature or else the plastics that are polluting and harmful to humans and the environment will increase for decades.
I recently read that in new studies carried out in the US, phthalates, synthetic chemicals found in many consumer products such as food containers, shampoos, make-up, perfumes and children’s toys, can lead to 90,000-100,000 premature deaths per year between people between the ages of 55 and 64.
I was impressed to read that according to this research, people with the highest levels of phthalates had a higher risk of death from any cause, particularly cardiovascular mortality, according to a study recently published in the journal Environmental Pollution. Scholars have estimated that the deaths could cost the United States alone $ 40 to $ 47 billion annually in lost economic productivity. This is incredible, considering that phthalates are only one possible ingredient in plastics.
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Unfortunately, phthalates interfere with the body’s mechanism for producing hormones, known as the endocrine system, and are “linked to developmental, reproductive, brain, immune and other problems.” As declared by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).
All these studies add to the data on the impact of plastic on the human body. Perhaps one day (hopefully soon) these studies will help everyone’s health and persuade companies to eliminate the use of plastics in a wide perspective. These claims are also found in the works of environmental medicine and population health scholars at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
Many research studies, published for years, had linked phthalates with reproductive problems, genital and testicular malformations already present in male infants and a decrease in sperm count and testosterone levels in adult males. Other studies have also linked phthalates to childhood obesity, asthma, cardiovascular problems and cancer.
I have read all this since 2007, fourteen years ago. I was shocked and it was an important driver for me to develop an alternative to plastic, an extraordinary product, but also very dangerous. A concern shared by many scientists around the world, but unknown to ordinary people.
What are phthalates?
Phthalates are a large family of organic chemicals derived from petroleum used as plasticizing agents, solvents and consistency and yield improvers of various products. These are the most popular plasticizers in the world and have been used for decades in the processing of polyvinyl chloride PVC which help to make it more flexible and soft. Slowly, companies claim to use less and less or replace them with something else, but no one can guarantee this. We are talking about millions of tons produced and used every year all over the world and it is not trivial not to use or replace them. There are various types, all are in liquid form and are practically odorless, but they do not always have a plasticizing function.
The types of phthalates are broadly:
- DNOP— di-n-octyil phthalate
- DIDP—diisodecyl phthalate
- DBP—dibutyl phthalateBBP—benzyl butyl phthalate
- DINP—diisononyl phthalate
- DEHP—bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate
Where can i find phthalates?
Phthalates are widely used in the majority of commonly used products and not only in those related to PVC and containers, but also to their content. The list of products that contain phthalates is very long: cosmetic creams, shampoos, adhesives, paints, pesticides, various types of containers including food, bags, cables and packaging materials.
Phthalates can be found in:
- Food containers
- Nail polish
- Packaging materials
Unfortunately, they’re also present in food. A research conducted a few years ago in the United States identified which foods may contain phthalates. The list also includes milk and meat due to the extensive use of these substances which began in recent decades which has contaminated the soil (pesticides) and therefore also the feed for animals. Then there are the packages in which the foods that may contain phthalates are wrapped and therefore these substances can migrate and add themselves from the plastic to the food.Even products for children with phthalates, today largely produced in China and therefore difficult to control, can be very dangerous such as:
- Plastic animals
- Bath toys
- Inflatable toys
- Beach toys
- Stationery items
A problem like this should have the whole world united to find a solution.It is not so. In fact, these studies and these dangerous products obtained from an “old” chemistry that does not want to be accountable to people can also be found in simple criticisms of research.The American Chemistry Council for example (which represents the chemical, plastics industries in the USA), has argued that some studies group all phthalates into one group and do not mention that high molecular weight phthalates such as DINP and DIDP have lower toxicity than to other phthalates.
But who takes care of this, who has the responsibility of giving us numbers and values? How do we know if the packaging in our hands contains DINP or DIDP?
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Being very common, phthalates are also added to consumer products such as plumbing, vinyl flooring, rain and stain resistant products, medical tubes, garden pipes and children’s toys to make plastics more flexible and more difficult to break.They’re also present in food packaging, detergents, clothing, furniture and automotive plastics. Phthalates are also added to cosmetic items such as shampoo, soap, hairspray and perfume to extend their shelf life.
In the US, for some years now, many state centers for disease prevention have claimed that people are exposed when they breathe contaminated air or eat or drink foods that have come into contact with plastic.Phthalate particles are also in the dust. Children touch many objects and then touch their eyes and put their hands in their mouths. Phthalate particles in dust may pose a greater risk to children than to adults. This observation and many others have already been studied and identified by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention USA today much better known for COVID-19 than for its countless research available to all.
Phthalates concentrations in urine were measured in over 5,000 adults aged 50 to 65 and these levels were compared with those of the risk of premature death over an average of 10 years.Scientists tested for pre-existing heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other common conditions, poor eating habits, physical activity and body mass, and levels of other known hormone-affecting chemicals.Phthalates interfere with the male sex hormone, testosterone, which is a generator of cardiovascular disease. And these exposures are known to contribute to mortality, such as obesity and diabetes.
The road is drawn. In the US, the FDA, for example, banned the use of BPA (another very harmful chemical present in plastics) in bottles and glasses in 2012.Exposure to phthalates and other endocrine disruptors such as BPA can be minimized. This chemical compound was found in most baby bottles, cups and containers until parents boycotted those products in 2011. Today, it is banned from introducing it into many materials and in many countries. The people wanted so.
In Europe, a restriction (REACH) on 4 phthalates came into force in 2018, it prevents their use exceeding 0.1% by weight.This is an interesting response even if it may be useless. When a coal-fired power plant gets shut off in Europe, 50 are established in China. In an increasingly global world this is no small detail.
At the dawn of 2022 how many years will we still have to wait to understand what is inside the polluting plastic coming from oil, the most used today? Which autonomous bodies can investigate? Who can withstand the economic pressures of huge chemical companies with large amounts of capital? Who will stop the continued growth and expansion of polluting plastics?And above all who guarantees our health and that of our children?
I think that everyone can give the sad answer on their own.
Is Europe acting or is it late?
We can already comment on the European example (it is yet to be finalized). Italy, for example, has not fully adhered to the rules of the European community on the ban on the production of disposable plastic items (SUP UE 2019/904) and has applied a new rule risking to pay hefty fines to ensure the existence a supply chain that does not produce naturally degradable bio-polymers, but products defined as natural that can be composted at the most.
Italy has exempted some types of BIOPLASTICS as opposed to what Europe requires. They applied an exemption for products made of “biodegradable” and “compostable” material, with certification in compliance with UNI EN 13432 or UNI EN 14995 standards with percentages of renewable raw material equal to or greater than 40% and higher from 1 January 2024 at least 60%. This last point will consist of further increasingly complex differentiations, but probably suitable for companies in the Italian supply chain.
Furthermore, the production and sale of POLYTHENE paper has also been granted, as long as the plastic affects the total weight with a value of less than 10%.So, for example, paper and plastic joined together can be produced and sold. But then what will become of the waste? The biodegradability parameters have been set by the EU in water, at sea. So how will products that do not biodegrade naturally or even in composting cycles biodegrade in the sea?But regardless of this, paper and cellulose will in some cases always be mixed with plastics. Why?
Even regulations such as UNI EN 13432 are preceded by two words every time they’re presented: BIODEGRADABLE and COMPOSTABLE. But it does not clearly state at what percentage and does not explain to people that it is NOT a natural biodegradation with no residue.
Does the damage to humans and nature remain, and is it difficult to manage?
Considering plastic pollution in the Mediterranean, it should be noted for those who have read in the media that Italy does not have great responsibility for the dispersion of plastic in the seas, which the evidence tells us quite differently. There are at least three recent studies that have identified Italy and Turkey as the countries most responsible for marine littering in the Mediterranean.In short, although Italy has invested in the bioplastics sector (and single-use too) more than any other country, (also trying to protect the supply chain with exceptions to what Europe decides), accepting the rules also means taking note of the community reality and prepare as a country to seize the economic opportunities that can arise from circular economic models. Models in which resources are not wasted in a single use and allow economic growth decoupled from the consumption of resources, with proven employment benefits. Also, no less important, stop polluting by making people believe that some products are natural and 100% naturally biodegradable when they are not.
To guarantee the health of people across Europe and around the world, it is necessary to know how bioplastics biodegrade and how plastics are recycled (biodegradation of bio polymers and studies on phthalates for example). Are there phthalates or aren’t there in virgin plastic when first used? And what do I find inside the recycled and reused one? The same is even more true for biopolymers. The final result does not change, the focus is always on the users who have the right to know if a recycled material or a compost hides a surprise.
Postings in this Column
Read all the article Marco Astorri Column
- Have You Ever Planted a Tree? Well, While You Wait For It to Grow, Use Biopolymers Too
- The Sea Starts from your Home
- The Current Situation of Bio-on
- The Expansion of Bio-on
- The Start Up of Bio-on
- New Columnist on Bioplastics News
The opinions expressed here by Marco Astorri and other columnists are their own, not those of Bioplasticsnews.com.