Another reason to avoid plastics

Garbage Can with Lid

Garbage Can with Lid

By Catherine Haug, Oct 2015 (Photo, right, from US Plastics (1)

It is now well known that we should avoid the plastic BPA or BPS because they can cause cancer. But I have long believed that all plastics are bad for our health – not just as a cause for cancer. Recently, my belief has strong scientific support.

Most plastics are not biodegradable, but they do break down in a different, harmful way. They form micro-particles/fibers that make their way into our waters and eventually to the oceans where their pollution of the water is analogous to pollution of our air by micro-particles. Remember how your lungs, sinuses and throat felt this summer from breathing the micro-particles in smoke from forest fires?

Ingestion of microplastic provides a potential pathway for the transfer of pollutants, monomers and plastic-additives to organisms with uncertain consequences for their health. This begins with microscopic animals like plankton, and moves up the food chain to humans. (5)

This problem is insidious; the particles are everywhere – even in beer! (2,4). One load of laundry can contain more than 1,900 fibers of microplastics, with [synthetic] fleeces releasing the highest percentage of fibers. (2,3,5)

Recycling or repurposing plastics does not abet the problem, and may in fact make it worse.

Source of microplastic particles

All synthetic and plastic objects form microplastic particles (see list below). Fabrics are a huge source; for example: polyesters, nylon, acrylics and some rayons; the worst offenders are synthetic fleece fabrics such as polar fleece. Every time garments made from these fibers are washed, they release microplastics into the wash and rinse water. Laundering just one garment made from synthetic fibers can produce more than 1,900 fibers per wash; multiply that by the garments per load, and the loads per week in the USA alone, it adds up quickly. (5)

Larger plastic trash (bags, bottles, toys, equipment, etc.) break down into smaller microparticles from weathering. “According to the study’s abstract, “microplastics concentrate persistent organic pollutants (POPs), absorbing other pollutants from the ocean water, making them more dangerous as time goes by. [While] the danger of these POPs to marine life is not yet known … the potential damage posed by these to the marine ecosystem has yet to be quantified and modeled” (quoting the author of a 2015 study) (5,6).

Microparticles (also known as nanoparticles) are also synthesized on purpose, for use in personal care products such as skin-care creams, shampoos, soap, toothpaste, eyeliners, lip gloss, deodorant and sunblock sticks. (9)

Examples of plastics in your home:

Note: this list is not all inclusive; I’ve tried to list things you may not think of as plastic.

  • Wall-to-wall carpeting (other than wool or cotton), and throw rugs
  • Vinyl flooring
  • Prescription pill and supplement containers
  • Frozen TV dinner containers
  • File and storage containers
  • Lawn furniture
  • Vinyl upholstery
  • Measuring spoons and cups
  • Mixing bowls
  • Car interiors
  • Latex paint
  • Luggage
  • Waste Baskets
  • Computers and cell phones
  • Synthetic fleece fabric
  • PVC pipes
  • Ink pens
  • Polyester, nylon, acrylic and some rayon fabrics

Health impact on humans

According to Ecology Center in Berkeley, Calif., the health effects from humans ingesting polyester microparticles include respiratory-tract irritation and skin rashes, while acrylic microparticles can cause breathing difficulties and nausea (7). These effects may seem minor, the accumulative and long-term effects have yet to be evaluated.

Some are lipophilic (fat loving) – such as PCBs – and get embedded in the fat-tissues of organisms (including humans) and accumulate over time. This has been studied in seabirds. (8)

Microplastics enter our food chain when they are consumed by small marine animals such as plankton, sea cucumbers, mussels, oysters, lobsters, and fish, and thus can potentially impact human health.

Plastic products contain additives like flame retardants, antioxidants, antistatic- and softening agents to give it specific characteristics. These can be released and enter the environment in which we live. (9) See below for list of such chemicals, and potential negative consequences for humans.

Toxic synthetic chemicals 

The following is just a sampling of toxic synthetic, petroleum-based chemicals found in the oceans (2): Aldicarb, benzene, carbon tetrachloride, chloroform, dioxin, ethylene dibromide (EDB), polychloriated biphenyls (PCBs), trichloroethylene (TCE), and vinyl chloride.

These contribute to sterility, cancer, genetic mutations, liver, lung and/or kidney damage, blood disorders, and skin disorders.



  1. US Plastics photo (
  2. Wikipedia on micro plastics (
  3. Browne A., 2011, Accumulations of microplastic on shorelines worldwide: sources and sinks, Environmental Science and Technology (
  4. Popular Science (
  5. Mother Nature Network (
  6. Study published July 13, 2015 in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, study author Anthony L. Andrady of North Carolina University (
  7. Ecology Center, Berkley CA (
  8. Missourian (
  9. Marine Conservation Society (


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