Report calls for global action to reduce EDC exposure from plastics
A report from the Endocrine Society and International Pollutants Elimination Network identifies more than 140 endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, and their negative effects on human health.
In the report, researchers project the global production of plastics to increase from 350 million metric tons in 2017 to 1.1 billion tons in 2050. Many plastic products include EDCs, potentially harmful chemicals that can disturb the body’s hormone systems. As plastic production increases, global chemical sales and production of EDCs are also projected to increase. The report’s authors said intervention from governments, businesses and consumers is needed to prevent this expected EDC exposure increase.
“We already see real-life health impacts of EDCs from, among other sources, plastics,” Sara Brosche, PhD, science adviser for the International Pollutants Elimination Network, said during a press conference. “If we have increased plastic production, that likely means that we will have an increase in the amount of plastics we are exposed to in our everyday life, and also a high likelihood that we’ll be exposed to an increase in EDCs. The problems that we already see today will become much worse.”
Wide range of EDCs influencing health
Plastics, EDCs & Health is a comprehensive report containing information on different types of EDCs and how they cause increased risks for poor health outcomes. The report cites 144 known chemicals or chemical groups that are hazardous to human health and actively used in plastics.
“The real importance of the report is that it shows that there are more and more studies indicating that there are endocrine-disrupting chemicals in plastics, and that these chemicals are getting into our bodies and causing endocrine disruption,” said Jodi Flaws, PhD, lead author of the report and professor of comparative biosciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “There’s lots of new information on the different chemicals and the different effects they are having on the endocrine system.”
Some of the EDCs in the report:
- bisphenol A — a chemical found in reusable food and beverage containers that can impair brain development and negatively affect reproductive health;
- phthalates — a group of chemicals commonly used in personal care products that reduce testosterone and estrogen levels and have been linked to diabetes and obesity;
- alkylphenols — a family of organic compounds used in latex paints, pesticides and industrial cleaners that have been linked to male infertility, disrupted prostate development and male cancers;
- perfluorinated compounds — chemicals found in water- and stain-resistant clothing, food contact wrappers, lubricants, paints and cookware that can disrupt immune systems, lower birth weight, alter puberty and raise breast cancer risk; and
- brominated flame retardants — compounds that reduce flammability in plastic products and are found in electronic casings, textiles, carpets, building materials and plastic children’s toys, and they can disrupt reproductive development and alter thyroid development and neurodevelopment.
“Consumers often relate only phthalates and bisphenols to plastics, so I hope this guide will open their eyes to understand there is a much wider variety of different chemicals that are used as additives to plastics,” said Pauliina Damdimopoulou, PhD, co-author and senior researcher at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm.
Preventing EDC production
Brosche said the only way to cut down on exposure to EDCs is through restricting their production. She said there is no way to sustainably remove plastic waste, as the EDCs present in plastic contaminate the soil, water, food and air after it has been dumped or incinerated. Recycling also does not solve the issue, as recycled plastics still contain EDCs, and the chemicals are simply transferred to the new product. Additionally, the recycling process can create new hazardous chemicals such as brominated and chlorinated dioxins.
“We need to stop producing plastic to the same extent,” Brosche said. “This has to be drastically reduced. At the same time, we have to look at the sources of the plastic to start moving away from fossil fuel-based sources and remove and replace those hazardous additives from the plastics.”
Recommendations from the International Pollutants Elimination Network include government policies banning EDCs in plastics, required labeling and transparency of chemical components in plastics, and market-based solutions such as taxes on products containing EDCs. Companies must move away from a dependency on plastics and hazardous substances.
“What’s new in this report that’s being released is a gathering of the information to promote more proactive action on EDCs and plastics,” Brosche said.
While government intervention is necessary to help protect the public, the presenters said there are several things consumers can do to cut down on EDC exposure. People are encouraged to use their own water bottles, coffee cups, take-out containers and other food items. They should also avoid heating plastic containers or placing hot food or drinks in plastic containers.
“Really try to limit the use of materials that contain phthalates,” Flaws said. “A lot of makeups and colognes and fragrances and personal care products contain a lot of phthalates. For some of the other chemicals, if you are going to be bringing in new furniture into your house, letting it air out. Another good policy, if it’s possible and you live in an area where you got relatively clean outdoor air, try to open your windows a little bit every day, let the fresh air in and let some of the bad air out.”
Damdimopoulou said day cares in Stockholm have removed a lot of plastic toys and other items to reduce EDC exposure for children.
“In the kitchen, make sure to remove all plastic items that are used to cook food, serve food, skipping over the canned foods because they have the plastic lining in the tin cans,” Damdimopoulou said. “All of these measures should have reduced exposure of the children and the staff to plastic additives to have hormone disruptive properties.”
The presenters said companies should move away from plastics to reduce EDC exposure, but consumer pressure can also help shift the market and force changes.