By Julie Deardorff, Tribune newspapers
May 9, 2011
While writing her book "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story," Susan Freinkel was shocked to learn how fast the world had become plasticized. In the 1940s, few plastics existed and hardly anything was made of it. Today, the average person is virtually never more than 3 feet from something made of plastic, said Freinkel.
"Plastic transformed the modern world as powerfully as the atomic bomb," Freinkel said. "But now, we're starting to see the fall out -- from the massive swirls of plastic debris in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans to the rising rates of chronic illnesses - -diabetes, heart disease, asthma, infertility and other ailments, that researchers are tracking back to chemicals contained in plastics - -and now in us as well."
Freinkel recognizes plastics are "admittedly wondrous materials" and says there are "many good reasons to be enthralled.
"But that infatuation has passed into a deep dependence that is not always healthy for the planet or ourselves," she said.
Most of us know very little about plastic, something we touch or use every day. If you've got questions about how it might affect children, Freinkel and reproductive endocrinologist Shanna Swan, a leading phthalate researcher and the vice chair of preventive medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center, will be on hand at noon CT Tuesday, for a health web chat.
In the meantime, here's some information Freinkel discovered while working on her book, an experience that made her "more appreciative and more worried about plastic" than she'd been before.
1. In 1960, the average American went through 30 pounds of plastics a year. Today, just 50 years later, Americans consume on average 300 pounds a year.
2. Though most plastic can be recycled, almost none is.
3. Hormone disrupting chemicals (which are found in some plastics) have their greatest impacts at critical points of development, making fetuses, infants, young children and teen-agers especially vulnerable.
4. Biomonitoring studies have found that children tend to have higher level of hormone disrupting compounds in their systems than most adults.
5. The 10 states with bottle bills have dramatically higher recycling rates and far lower amounts of litter.
6. Production of bioplastics is the fastest-growing area in the industry, with double-digit projected growth rates. Every major producer of raw plastic resins is exploring ways to make polymers from plants, waste and other renewable sources of carbon.
7. Manufacturers aren’t required to tell us what chemicals are contained in the products we use everyday. Because of the long supply chain involved in making many plastic products, they may well not know themselves.
8. Things made from soft vinyl, like bath books or squeeze toys, may contain chemicals called phthalates, which can disrupt production of testosterone, potentially leading to a host of health effects.
9. Some plastics, and some plastic products pose greater problems than the benefits they bring. Freinkel puts vinyl, Styrofoam foodware and plastic shopping bags in that list.
10. Plastics are a double-edged sword when it comes to our health. They have made possible most of the miracles of modern medicine and are indispensible to the everyday practice of health care. But they also have introduced new health risks by virtue of the chemicals used in their manufacture.
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