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Plastics And What It Means To Our Health
Plastics And What It Means To Our Health

By - Adedoyin Shittu

Posted - 07-06-2019

The word “plastics” covers a gamut of synthetic materials that are easy to manufacture, cheap to produce with the help of chemical additives and processes . Plastic are also incredibly versatile in application though most of plastic produced are only used once. Plastic are chemically inert so they persevere in the environment. Most of them end up in the sea; environmentalists reported that about 8 million metric tons of waste plastic enters the oceans every year. Sunlight and wave action break these waterborne plastics down into smaller sizes,  that are micrometers or even nanometers in size. These are called “Microplastic”.

Sadly Plastic has become a permanent fix in our lives, we live in a plastic world, we eat with plastic, wear plastic, interact with plastic, move in plastic and sometimes eat and drink plastic (especially those who eat sea food).

Plastics can, however, be hazardous to human lives depending on the plastic type, how it is used and what it is used for.

Plastic are generally said to be chemically inert but some additives used as building blocks in the processing are known carcinogens such Phthalates and Bisphenols.


These are a group of chemicals most commonly used to make plastic more flexible and harder to break. Phthalates can be released from a product by heat, agitation, or prolonged storage. The release can occur during all the stages of the product lifecycle – from production, through use, to disposal.

The effect of phthalates’ on humans have not been studied extensively, but they are believed to be an Endocrine-disrupting chemical (EDC).

Endocrine-disrupting chemical (EDC) are chemicals that can alter hormonal balance and potentially cause reproductive, developmental and other health issues.

Human exposure to phthalates has been found to be associated with numerous reproductive health and developmental problems such as:

  • Early onset of puberty.
  • Interfering with the male reproductive tract development.
  • Interfering with the natural functioning of the hormone system.
  • Causing reproductive and genital defects.
  • Lower testosterone levels in adolescent males.
  • Lower sperm count in adult males.

Phthalates have also been linked to allergies in infants and children. It crosses the placenta and can increase the risk of miscarriage and gestational diabetes in pregnant women.

Children under the age of three are more at risk from phthalates because of their developing, smaller body size and ever-present exposure to children’s products manufactured using multiple types of phthalate compounds.


BPA is considered a building block of plastic and is one of the most used industrial chemicals used today. The BPA molecules that make up plastic are bound together by what’s called an “ester bond”, which is extremely sensitive to heat. So when you heat up your food in plastic, that heat breaks some of the bonds, releasing the chemicals into your food.

BPA has been found in the urine of nearly all people tested by the “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention” (CDC), as well as in amniotic fluid and breast milk of about 90% of women surveyed by researchers. Researchers detected BPA in the amniotic fluid of full-term fetuses in 2002 at  the University of Tokyo.

Prenatal exposure to the chemical has been linked to anxiety, depression and hyperactivity among children, and increased risk of breast cancer later in life.

Though the health effects of BPA are still debated, it is thought to be an endocrine disruptor that mimics estrogen in the body, potentially causing adverse health effects.

The chemical has also been linked to a wide range of health conditions similar to the phthalates in human and animal studies. BPA has been linked to obesity, cancer, and endocrine problems in fetuses and children

Also Read: The Future of Jobs : The Start of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Part 1)


Not many notice this fact but every bottle has a recycle sign. This means that not every plastic is to be reused. On the basis of recycling symbol or code, plastics can be grouped into seven. It is also on this basis that plastics are regarded as harmful or safe and eco-friendly.

If you look at the bottom of any plastic product, a number ranging from 1 to 7 is imprinted somewhere inscribed in the arrow-chasing triangle and with acronym or symbol just below the triangle. This is the class to which the plastic belong to.

Classes of Plastic according to how they are recycled

Class 1: PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate)

This is the most common class of plastic used by consumers. It is used in packaging bottled water and fizzy drinks. The problem with this plastic type is that; it is meant for a single use and to recycled afterwards. This is because the porous nature of its surface which allows bacteria and flavor to accumulate.

Class 1 plastic is “relatively” safe, but it is should be kept out of the heat or temperature above 28 degree Celsius to prevent the leaching out antimony trioxide, a cariconogen to leach into your liquids.

Also repeated reuse of this class of plastic increases the chance that chemicals will leak out of the tiny cracks and crevices that develop in the containers over time. repeated use increases the risk of leaching and bacterial growth.

Class 2: HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene)

HDPE is the most commonly recycled plastic, it is that stiff plastic used to make plastic coolers and water bottles. It does not break down under exposure to sunlight or extremes of heating or freezing and it is considered one of the safest forms of plastic. It is a relatively simple and cost-effective process to recycle HDPE plastic for secondary use. This class is considered safe and has low risk of leaching.

Class 3: PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)

This class of plastic is also called “poison plastic” because it contains numerous toxins which can leach throughout its entire life cycle. PVC plastic should not be recycled because of the dangerous chemical additives present in it.

PVC plastic is commonly used as the sheathing material for computer cables, making of  plastic pipes and parts for plumbing, window frames, garden hoses, arbors, raised beds and trellises.

Phthalates are frequently added to PVC (vinyl) products to soften and make more flexible. If a PVC plastic product is flexible, it probably contains phthalates. These class of plastic should be kept away from food and drinks because of the presence of Phthalates.

Class 4: LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene)

LDPE is considered less toxic than other plastics, and relatively safe for use. LDPE is often found in shrink wraps, dry cleaner garment bags, squeezable bottles, and the type of plastic bags used to package bread. The plastic grocery bags used in most stores today are made using LDPE plastic. Some clothing and furniture also uses this type of plastic. 

Class 5: PP (Polypropylene)

This plastic is tough and lightweight, and has excellent heat-resistance qualities. It is commonly used for disposable diapers, pails, plastic bottle tops, margarine and yogurt containers, potato chip bags, straws, packing tape and rope. As long as you avoid the microwave, this class is considered a safe plastic

Class 6:  PS (Polystyrene)

Polystyrene is an inexpensive, lightweight and easily-formed plastic with a wide variety of uses. It is most often used to make disposable “styrofoam” drinking cups, take-out “clamshell” food containers, egg cartons, plastic picnic cutlery, foam packaging and those ubiquitous “peanut” foam chips used to fill shipping boxes to protect the contents.

Polystyrene may leach styrene, a possible human carcinogen, into food products (especially when heated in a microwave). Chemicals present in polystyrene have been linked with human health and reproductive system dysfunction.

This class of plastic is considered unsafe for food and drink.

Class 7: Others ( Polycarbonate and LEXAN)

Plastic in this category was designed for every other types of plastic. Reuse and recycling protocols are not standardized within this category and polycarbonate falls into this class. BPA is found in polycarbonate plastic. BPA has the potential for chemical leaching into food or drink products packaged in polycarbonate containers.

Products produced include baby and water bottles, sports equipment, medical and dental devices, CD’s and DVD’s, and some computer and other technological parts.

In summary, classes of plastic in 2, 4, and are generally considered safe. Though it is not wise for it to be used in a microwave, even if they are labelled “microwave-safe”.

Classes of plastic in 1,3, 6 and 7 should be used with extreme caution especially around food and drinks.

PET plastics is relatively safe but it should be stored in cool environments and should not be reused.


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