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The plastic threat to your health

Increasing cases of male infertility, birth defects and cancers in the country likely linked to components in evert-day use products, have prompted a soon-to-be gazetted Bill that regulates plastic use in Kenya.

You may soon be confronted with graphic health warnings on your pizza box or candy wrapper of possible cancer risk. Why, because the plastics contain components known as endocrine disrupting chemicals that are causing great harm to health.

Similar restrictions are also being contemplated on a host of plastic-containing products, including toys, clothes, containers and cosmetics that are a risk to human health.

Last week, the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) adopted standards that could also see safety restrictions on your popular lip gloss or aftershave.

“We have introduced new standards that assure Made in Kenya products meet globally accepted chemical safety standards,” said Kebs Managing Director Bernard Njiraini.

But it is a whole range of chemical safeguards in the soon to be gazetted: Toxic and Hazardous Chemicals and Materials Management Regulations 2019, that promises to change the way Kenyans interact with chemicals.

A key component of the policy is the regulation, for the first time of chemicals in many everyday use products that have been shown to alter human genes, cause hormonal imbalances, cancers, diabetes, birth defects or affect human fertility.

The regulations will allow the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) to classify, register, limit or even ban such chemicals or products in Kenya. 

They may also, require products containing such harmful chemicals to display highly visible graphic warnings just like found on cigarette packets.

For the first time Kenya will specifically regulate chemicals that may cause or suspected of causing genetic defects, cancers, infertility in the unborn child, harm breastfed child or may cause damage to organs.

This follows mounting evidence, indicating chemicals found in everyday use plastics are the cause of many emerging human health conditions.

“We now have enough evidence showing plastics contain chemicals that affect the hormonal systems, cause cancers, diabetes, reproductive and neurological disorders in children and foetuses,” said a global report on health and plastics released last month.

Changing your genes

The report by the Endocrine Society and the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), says it’s time to address how plastics are modifying human genes.

“Many of the plastics we use every day at home and work are exposing us to a harmful cocktail of endocrine-disrupting chemicals,” said lead author, Dr Jodi Flaws of the University of Illinois, US.

“Definitive action is needed on a global level to protect human health and our environment from these threats.”

Of concern especially are a wide range of chemicals found in plastic products called endocrine-disrupting chemicals or EDCs.

The endocrine system is a network of glands and organs located throughout the human body.  They produce substances called hormones that regulate many functions of the body such as growth and development, tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, sleep and mood, among other things.

Too much or too little of any hormone can harm the body. For example, EDCs are thought to interfere with the regulation of insulin in the body leading to or worsening diabetes.

It is the endocrine system that the EDCs are accused of disrupting leading to cancers, birth defects and other developmental disorders.

“Some EDCs occur naturally, while synthetic varieties can be found in pesticides, electronics, personal care products and cosmetics. They can also be found as additives or contaminants in food,” says Dr Maria Neira, WHO’s Director for Public Health and Environment.

“EDCs are in the air we breathe, in the food we eat, and in the water, we drink. They can be found in our everyday lives through personal care products, household cleaning products, and furniture and in children’s toys,” says Prof Telma Encarnacao, of the University of Coimbra, Portugal.

Dr Flaws says plastics are of greatest concern because of their extensive use in all type of products toys, leisure goods, home electronics, clothing, furniture, textiles, cigarettes, medical equipment, cosmetics, and food packaging and wrappers.

During the manufacture, washing, recycling and disposal of these products, small particles called micro plastics, measuring about five millimeters in diameter escape becoming major, soil, air, and water pollutants.

One study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund estimated that people consume about five grammes of plastic a week — roughly the equivalent of a credit card.

 Micro plastics in the water

Closer home, a recent study reported a high concentration of micro plastics in the waters of Lake Naivasha that are a threat to human and animal health in the area.

An earlier study on pigs reared along the highly polluted Nairobi River found many of the males with undescended testicles and poor fertility.

The researchers reported 10 per cent of male piglets in the areas of Dandora, Mathare, and Kibera had retained testicles an indication of infertility.

Investigations by the University of Nairobi had found high levels of EDCs in the water and cautioned that prolonged consumption of such animals may affect fertility in humans.

Senior researchers, Prof Henry Mutembei and Prof Erastus Mutiga of the University of Nairobi had recommended investigation on whether consuming vegetables farmed with the same water may be affecting male fertility.

The new IPEN study wants policies put in place to reduce or eliminate EDCs from plastic and says recycling is not enough.

Recycled plastics, IPEN says, still contain EDCs, and the chemicals are simply transferred to the new product.

“We need to stop producing most of the plastic and create safer alternatives,” said Dr Sara Brosche, an adviser to IPEN.

But manufacturers in Kenya are not taking such drastic steps lying down, telling regulators to let them solve the problem.

“In the foreseeable future, substitution will largely not be able to replace the many favourable attributes of plastics,” says Phyllis Wakiaga the CEO, Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM).

In a three-year - Kenya Plastic Action Plan - KAM says the development of an orderly and comprehensive recycling structure is the preferred alternative to substitution.

The plan, according to KAM, targets at increasing the recycling of plastic waste from the current about six per cent to 30 per cent by 2030.

However, KAM says, banning of plastics will cause more problems than solutions and instead supports engagement with the government and communities.

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