"All plastic should be labeled as hazardous waste," Captain Charles Moore, discoverer of the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," said to me the other night at a Surfrider Foundation anti-plastics campaign benefit. At least three new studies about plastic's negative impact on our health and the environment confirm his statement. Moore was here with many others to present research at the UNEP/NOAA Marine Debris Conference in Honolulu last week, during which, incredibly enough, the word "plastic" was kept out of official circulation, replaced by the euphemism "marine debris," as the Plastic Pollution Coalition reports. "Almost all so-called 'marine debris' is plastic," Moore told me. Conference sponsors included Coca Cola and the American Chemistry Council (ACC), which has been pouring money into efforts to block bans on disposable plastic grocery bags nationwide.
Meanwhile, the latest science shows that plastics are really, really bad news. For years, the conventional wisdom has been that while some bad plastics, such as polycarbonate (PC #7) release toxic chemicals, notably hormone-disrupting Bisphenol-A (BPA), other plastics are safer. Unfortunately, they aren't. Hormone-disrupting, estrogenically active (EA) chemicals were found to be leached from all kinds of plastics, including those labeled BPA-free, in a study published by EHP in March. "In some cases, BPA-free products released chemicals having more EA than BPA-containing products," wrote researchers, who tested 450 baby bottles, water bottles, plastic food containers and wraps bought from retailers including Wal-mart and Whole Foods. Seventy percent of the items released EA into solutions at room temperature, and 95% leached EA after stress tests simulating normal use in dishwashers and microwaves.
There's more. In a small but compelling study released yesterday in EHP online, BPA levels in urine samples taken from five Bay Area families -- 10 adults and 10 children -- dropped by 66 percent over just three days when they stopped eating packaged food, including food from plastic packages and cans -- most of the latter are lined with BPA-laced epoxy resin. Participants' levels of DEHP phthalate, another hormone-disrupting chemical commonly found in flexible PVC plastic, dropped by 53-56 percent. This is good news!
There's another way we can get exposed to plastic chemicals -- by eating fish. Algalita's latest findings: Thirty-five percent of plankton-eating lantern fish, the bottom of the marine food chain, had plastic in their bellies. Like dioxins, mercury, PCBs and toxic fire retardants, this toxic plastic plasma will rise in the food chain and find its way into our bellies if we don't stop contributing to it soon.
What to Do?
First, we've got to stop buying single-use plastic. We should also recycle, rather than toss our old plastics in the trash. "Everything eventually makes its way into the ocean," Captain Moore says. His research voyages to the Great Pacific Gyres off Hawaii and Japan, and the waters between, show that the ocean is fast turning into a plastic plasma. Discarded plastic bottles, containers, toys, and fishing line are broken up into microscopic fragments, about plankton size.
We can reduce our levels of BPA and phthalates like those families by eating mostly fresh, not processed, packaged foods. Check out the SF Chronicle's interviews with the researchers here
What Else You Can Do.
Read about and support ongoing research by Moore's Algalita Foundation.
Help stop the use of single-use grocery bags in your community. Take the Plastics Pledge and learn more about Surfrider Foundation's Rise Above Plastics campaign.