Opinion by Erich Hetzel & Katie Berry
Whenever you read about the impact of plastic pollution, it’s scary to learn about the damage it does to our environment, particularly our ocean life. What is often overlooked, however, is much more disturbing. It is the impact plastic has on humans and the damage it does to our bodies. Plastic isn’t just killing our natural environment; plastic could be killing us, too.
Shanna Swan, professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, is a leading authority on this foreboding subject. In her book Count Down, she explains how modern chemicals in the environment are changing human sexuality and fertility on a massive scale.
Sperm counts among men in Western countries have plummeted by 50 per cent over the past 40 years.
Younger women, as well as those over the age of 35, are suffering from what she refers to as “impaired fecundity”, or the ability to have children.
The most terrifying finding of her extensive research is that if nothing changes, we could be on course for an infertile world by 2045.
What does this have to do with plastic?
The chemicals added to plastic or used in their manufacture — such as phthalates, which make plastic soft or flexible, and bisphenol A, which hardens it — have been linked to fertility issues in men and women, including diminishing sperm count, poor sperm quality, miscarriage and higher rates of erectile dysfunction.
This is because these chemicals are “endocrine-disrupting chemicals”, which means they may mimic hormones. Hormones such as the sex hormones oestrogen and testosterone regulate your body’s development and are vital for reproduction.
What’s worse is the damage possibly caused by these chemicals is not limited to the reproductive system. Exposure to chemicals found in plastics has been linked to diabetes, neurological problems, behavioural issues, cancers, birth defects, gastric ulcers, respiratory issues, thyroid problems and cardiovascular disease.
Exposure to these chemicals can occur when they leach into food and drinks from plastic packaging. Of particular concern is when the plastic is heated, such as in a microwave oven, or when a plastic drink bottle is left in a hot car.