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Household Plastic Products Disrupt Endocrine System, Threaten Human Health

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By IISD’s SDG Knowledge Hub , January 13, 2021


Over 1,000 manufactured chemicals used today are endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), including flame retardants, dioxins, UV-stabilizers, and toxic metals such as lead and cadmium, according to a report published by the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) and the Endocrine Society. The report is intended as a guide for public interest organizations and policymakers.

The report titled, 'Plastics, EDCs & Health,' summarizes research on the health impacts of EDCs in plastics. Plastics contain and leach hazardous chemicals, including EDCs, which disturb the body’s hormone systems and can cause cancer, diabetes, reproductive disorders, and neurological damage in fetuses and children. The report points to a direct causal relationship between toxic chemical additives in plastics and impacts on the endocrine system. 

Lead author Jodi Flaws, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the US, said many plastics used on a daily basis are exposing us to a “harmful cocktail” of EDCs. Plastic containing EDCs is used in construction, food production and packaging, cookware, children’s toys, furniture, home electronics, textiles, automobiles, and cosmetics, among other common items.

The report finds that 144 hazardous chemicals or chemical groups are used in plastics, and it describes seven harmful chemical types in detail. Bisphenols are used in reusable food and beverage containers, reusable water bottles, food can linings, medical and sports equipment, eyeglass lenses, thermal paper receipts, and plastic water pipes. Alkylphenols can be found in latex paints, pesticides, industrial cleaners, detergents, and personal care products. Phthalates are used to promote flexibility and reduce brittleness in plastics. 

Perfluorinated chemicals are used in water and stain-resistant clothing, food contact wrappers, lubricants, carpet treatments, paints, cookware, and other products. Flame retardants hep reduce flammability in plastic products. UV stabilizers protect plastic building materials, automotive parts, waxes, and paints from deterioration from UV radiation. Dioxins, for which no safe exposure levels exists, are byproducts of industrial and combustion processes and the production of plastic products.

The report concludes that:

  • Exposure can occur during the entire life span of plastic products;
  • Exposure is universal and almost everyone has EDCs in their bodies;
  • Microplastics contain chemical additives, which can bind and accumulate toxic chemicals from the environment and act as toxic compound carriers; and
  • Biodegradable plastics, often promoted as more ecological than conventional plastics, contain similar chemical additives and have endocrine-disrupting effects.

IPEN Co-Chair Pamela Miller said plastic production is projected to increase by 30-36% over the next six years, which will exacerbate EDC exposure and increase endocrine disease rates. She called for global policies to reduce and eliminate EDCs from plastic and reduce exposure from plastic recycling, plastic waste, and incineration. She identified EDCs in plastics as an international health issue, particularly in the global south where “toxic plastic waste shipments from wealthier countries inundate communities.”

The Endocrine Society, founded in 1916, undertakes research on hormones and the clinical practice of endocrinology, and is comprised of over 18,000 scientists, physicians, educators, nurses, and students in more than 100 countries. [Publication: Plastics, EDCs & Health] [IPEN press release] [IPEN brochure